Starting with the Assumption that I’m Wrong

So I’ve been trying this thing. If I’m contemplating a change in my thinking or my life—especially for ethical reasons—I shift my perspective for a bit, and start with the assumption that I’m wrong.

I don’t mean this in a “proof by contradiction” sort of way, like in logic or math, where you assume that the thing you’re trying to prove is wrong so you can come to a paradox and thus find out that it’s really right. I mean it in a more practical way. I mean actually living and thinking, temporarily, as if my old ideas are wrong and the new ones I’m considering are right. I mean living with the new ideas for a little while, to see if my thinking gets clearer. And I mean experimenting to find out: If I were wrong, if I had to change—what would my life look like?

We all have a tendency to start with the assumption that we’re right. It’s just how our human brains work. We start with the assumption that we’re right, that we’re smart, that we’re good—and we work backwards from there. We come up with rationalizations for why the things we do, and the things we want to do, are right, smart, and good. (In fact, unusually intelligent people can be unusually good at this.) And when we’re challenged on our rightness and smartness and goodness, we get defensive. No matter how skeptical we are, no matter how conscious we are of cognitive biases—including this one—we still do this. It doesn’t make us bad people; in fact, there are very good reasons for why our brains work this way (among other things, if we constantly questioned every decision large or small, we’d become frozen, unable to do anything). This is just part of the unconscious background machinery of our minds.

But when it comes to important questions that I really want to look at clearly, rationalization can be a real problem. I’ve been looking at ways to hijack it. And it’s helped to start with the assumption that I’m wrong, to temporarily live as if I’m wrong and need to change.

Let me give you two examples.


Humanist Cover Sept Oct 2015
Thus begins my latest “Fierce Humanism” column for The Humanist magazine, Starting with the Assumption that I’m Wrong. To read more, read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Comforting Thoughts book cover oblong 100 JPG
Coming Out Atheist
why are you atheists so angry
Greta Christina is author of four books: Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God, Coming Out Atheist: How to Do It, How to Help Each Other, and Why, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless, and Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More.

Starting with the Assumption that I’m Wrong
Damien Marie AtHope: Axiological Atheist, Anti-theist, Anti-religionist, Secular Humanist. Rationalist, Writer, Artist, Poet, Philosopher, Advocate, and Activist

2 thoughts on “Starting with the Assumption that I’m Wrong

  1. 1

    I’ve done a similar sort of thing to the “Ableism Challange” that you mentioned, only I didn’t approach it as a challenge. I was part of a community that took a hard stance on ableism, and I thought it made sense, so I tried to carry it over to my day-to-day life.

    And yeah, my brain works differently now. I don’t think of people with beliefs I find absurd as stupid anymore… I don’t “look down” on them like I used to (as if I should have ever “looked down” on someone for being less intelligent). I still think the beliefs are wrong, but I feel like I’ve obtained a basic respect for the people holding them that I lacked before.

    Yeesh… that sounds bad when I say it out loud…

    This process is basically a sort of deprogramming (or reprogramming). It can be surprising how an apparently limited set of beliefs can have such a wide-spread effect on the rest of your worldview.

  2. 2

    Regarding the “Ableism Challenge” — it’s not quite as clear cut as the post makes it sound. While it certainly can be good and useful for those of us with the resources to examine and alter our vocabularies to do so — such resources are not available to everyone. Particularly not to many people with various intellectual and/or developmental disabilities, and/or mental illnesses. And there is quite a range of opinions among disabled people over what language is or isn’t “ableist”. Finally, as I understand it, the authors of the Challenge, while they are disabled, are not actually people who are the purported targets of various of the terms they list (like ‘stupid’, or the r-word). So the (good) habit of defaulting to agreeing with people talking about their community doesn’t actually apply, at least not with regards to those words.

    Further links provided on request.

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