Trial and error is nature’s way of experimentation and evolution. To some, “trial and error” is a pejorative phrase that means, “you’re too stupid to figure it out the right way the first time, so you have to keep doing it over and over.” I remember on one of the old Star Trek episodes, DeForest Kelly (“Bones”) says to Spock: “Doctors are trained in science, Mr. Spock!” Spock (voice dripping with sarcasm and contempt): “Oh really Doctor! Observing you, I assumed it was all trial and error.”
Trial and error gets a bad name because you are constantly making mistakes and correcting them. You can’t afford to make a mistake in engineering, for example, when you are building a bridge, or in medicine, when you are treating a sick patient. That’s why these disciplines have developed protocols for various procedures, to ensure that the best result occurs for each procedure. But how have these successful protocols been developed? Through experimentation. And what is experimentation but trial and error?
When Thomas Edison experimented with filaments for the old-style light bulb, he literally tested hundreds of different materials. These experiments were simply trials, which resulted in mistakes, or errors, in different degrees. Fortunately Edison didn’t give up too soon, before he discovered how to make light bulbs that have kept us out of the dark for over a century now.
The thing about trial and error is that it can also lead to quantum leaps.
If you don’t know about all of the experimentation, and are suddenly presented with the results, you say, “Wow, you must be really smart to have thought of that all at once!” Well, evolution proceeds by nature through trial and error, or gradual improvement, but (in my opinion) consciousness also gradually (and quietly) evolves more and more sophisticated thought templates over time, which then suddenly can result in a finished, manifested product.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in “The Dancing Men,” one of his Sherlock Holmes stories, explains this perfectly.
After startling Watson with the conclusion that he does not propose to invest in South African gold securities, Holmes says: “‘You see, my dear Watson’ -- he propped his test-tube in the rack, and began to lecture with the air of a professor addressing his class –- ‘it is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple in itself. If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and presents one's audience with the starting-point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling, though possibly a meretricious, effect.’”
The point is, one does not notice the gradual development, or trial and error, behind the scenes, because only the finished product is worthy of note. But behind that brilliant new development is a lot of painstaking thought and work – and mistakes. In other words, trial and error is the most vital algorithm in the evolutionary process.
I remember when Bob Seeger burst onto the music scene back in the 1980s. To the rest of the country, he emerged out of nowhere, an almost instant sensation. But those of us who lived in the Detroit area knew this guy had been toiling locally for almost 20 years, playing in clubs, bars, and parties, with little recognition. Seeger and his band were experimenting, but nobody saw their mistakes.
I wish I could find this article, I believe it might have been a TED Talk, about the company that wanted to develop a spray coating for their storage containers, to prevent moisture and other environmental factors from spoiling the contents. They hired a brilliant PhD and told him, “We don’t want to waste our time and money with a lot of drudgery and experimentation. It costs too much. So what we want you to do is design a perfect sprayer and a nozzle that will apply this coating to our rigid standards.” The idea was, “Why should we be stupid and use trial and error? We’ll hire this brilliant guy and he will design it right the first time and we’ll save a lot of money.”
Well, the scientist went to work and came up with a sprayer and a nozzle that would apply the coating in the most efficient manner. But it turned out that the design, although satisfactory, didn’t really live up to the company’s expectations. So they had to do a lot of experimentation (trial and error) to fine-tune the design anyway!
Here is another example. Theoretical physicist Amit Goswani, in his article “Darwin’s Mistake” says:
“Everybody is by now familiar with the fossil gaps [the gaps in the fossil records]. Contrary to a great number of biologists’ expectations starting with Darwin, the fossil gaps have never filled up with the thousands upon thousands of predicted intermediates. The vast majority of the gaps are real; about this there is no doubt. So what do they signify? What do they prove[?].
“Neo-Darwinists, and the majority of biologists, fall into a dogmatic worldview insisting that the fossil gaps mean nothing. They are sold on a promissory evolutionism—faithfully believing that eventually the gaps will fill up.
“The most vocal public opponents of this view are followers of Biblical creationism, the idea that God created life, literally, all at once. In this view there is no evolution. Fossils mean nothing significant and the fossil gaps are the living (or should one say dead) proof of this.
“According to creationism, there cannot be any intermediates whatsoever. So today, biologists tout the few intermediates that are found in the fossil data as evidence for their faith in evolution as well as for their devotion to Darwinism. This is highly misleading.
“It is true that the existence of intermediates between two fossil lineages (as between reptiles and birds) refutes creationism and proves evolutionism, but evolutionism is not synonymous with Darwinism that would require thousands upon thousands of such intermediates to verify....”
“So, what is the fossil gaps evidence for? Apart from the slow tempo of evolution that Darwin suggested and upon which neo-Darwinists are sold, there is a fast tempo of evolution—so fast that there isn’t time for the formation of fossils. This fast tempo is what produces the fossil gaps. In other words, evolution is like punctuated prose; there are abrupt and discontinuous punctuation marks among the otherwise continuous prose (Eldredge and Gould, 1972)....
“Creativity occurs through quantum leaps, taking no time. This I submit as the new mechanism revealing the fast tempo of evolution! This theory integrates the thinking of everyone: from intelligent design theorists to developmental biologists, the catastrophe thinkers and even the open-minded Darwinist....
Goswani concludes: “What is crucial is that consciousness has the vital blueprint of the organ unconsciously giving it a rough guideline of what to process for. When there is a match, a quantum leap takes place all at once and consciousness makes a physical (organ) representation of the morphogenetic blueprint expressing all the necessary uncollapsed genes all at once (Goswami, 1997a, 1997b). No fossil record for the intermediate stages, because there are no intermediate stages!”
This is a fascinating article about how consciousness interacts with matter to produce evolutionary advances. Goswani is saying that over time and “behind the scenes,” consciousness develops a better blueprint for an organ and then, when the biology is finally ready through a gradual, behind the scenes evolution, the superior blueprint suddenly manifests.
It APPEARS to have happened all at once (no fossil record), but like Holmes explaining to Watson, or the Silver Bullet Band, we don’t see the intermediate inferences or trials, only the finished result.
All this as a prelude to expressing what I really wanted to say this month, which is, that mistakes are the way evolution [nature, God, Spirit, what have you] advances to a quantum leap. This was said to me by one of my clients, Khurshid Ali, a man of great wisdom. I was complaining that on my last typesetting project, it took me a lot longer than I wanted to get the final result. I told him I made too many mistakes, that it would have been great if I could have done it right the first time.
I had never associated mistakes with trial and error, or evolution. My idea was that a mistake was something that should be avoided. I was like the company who wanted to design the sprayer perfect the first time, or the band that wanted to get the perfect song on the first practice. But it turns out that that’s impossible! Mistakes are inevitable, because mistakes aren’t really mistakes, they are just trials, or experiments, if you will. As Bill Murray said to Rita in “Groundhog Day”: “God really isn’t that smart. It’s just that he’s been around for so long.”
Life is just a series of experiments, whether those experiments are about typesetting, or editing, or computer programming, or art, or whatever you do at work: but they also apply to human relationships.
Getting to know a person is a series of trials: we do or say something and the other person reacts to it. We then have to decide whether we like that person enough to put up with his or her idiosyncracies.
Sometimes we call these “annoying habits.”
Sheldon Cooper, for example, has so many annoying habits, but Penny and the crew put up with him anyway. Sheldon makes so many mistakes in his life that it’s funny, but even Sheldon has Amy to admire him! The one thing that Sheldon DOESN”T do is beat himself up for those mistakes. That’s one of the reasons he is so annoying, because we think, “if this idiot would only realize how STUPID he is!” But if Sheldon did that he’d commit suicide, really, because he is such a dolt. Not beating himself up is the only way he can get through life, because he is messing up all over the place!
Sheldon shows us that even if you are a jerk, beating yourself up over a mistake isn’t the right way to live -– it’s always better to look at your mistakes as trials or experiments and, as Khurshid told me, “try to do better next time.” That’s the key to life!
So what I’d like to say this month is that perfection isn’t all it’s cranked up to be. And, mistakes aren’t really mistakes, they’re just experiments, or trials, that lead to a certain result. If you aren’t satisfied with the result, then you make another experiment. You try again and try to do better the next time. The only real mistake is to look at your mistakes as mistakes!
Does that make sense? You might say, “if no one ever saw their mistakes as mistakes, they’d keep on being jerks, or being stupid.” Well, I’d argue just the opposite. When you see your trials or experiments as mistakes, you beat yourself up over them. And when that happens, you become even a bigger moron and make even more mistakes than you did before! We’ve all done this, so you know this from personal experience.
(And BTW, there IS a cure for stupid. It’s called trial and error, and simply not looking at your errors as mistakes. As a wise woman once said, “genius is just attention to a subject.”)
A wise man once said, “The only aberration is denial of self.” When you deny self you make yourself more stupid and more dense, and that doesn’t do anyone any good.
In other words, we are all divine consciousness inhabiting physical bodies in a world of duality. We have to “take the bad with the good.” This is an inevitable result of living in the physical universe. The key to success is not looking at the “errors” you make in life as something bad. They’re just trials that result in a specific phenomenon.
The key is, unlike Sheldon, to OBSERVE yourself and others, and to understand how your actions make others feel. The problem with Sheldon Cooper is that he doesn’t see the effect of his actions on others, because he can’t feel or empathize with anyone but himself. He tries to “do better next time,” but he’s all up in his head and never reaches the fundamental problem of his lack of empathy for others. His solutions are always intellectual, and treat other people as variables in a computer program, bypassing the heart and the emotions. BUT Sheldon doesn’t beat himself up over his little life experiments, which enables him to keep going despite his incompetence in human relationships.
But you and I are not like that. In fact, we are good people who care about others and don’t want to upset anyone. But we are always going to make mistakes in our dealings with other people, because that is how we (and nature) evolves.
So buck up, accept that you’re not perfect, and understand that even God isn’t perfect (if God is the collective consciousness of everyone in the universe, and we’re all making mistakes, then God is making mistakes!). Perfection is impossible, even in the non-physical! Individuals, and God, are winging it. Let’s accept our mistakes and learn from them, so that we don’t find ourselves in the basket.