For those of you not familiar with Isaac Asimov, he was, by all accounts, a pretty interesting guy. Professor of biochemistry. Renowned science fiction author. Historian, poet, and all-round prolific writer.
What really caught my attention about him recently, though, was a response he once wrote to a letter he received from a young undergraduate.
The young man of the letter was indignant because Asimov had claimed in an earlier essay that mankind had finally grasped the basic rules governing the universe.
In retort, he pointed out that in every century people have thought they understood the universe, and in every century they have been proven wrong. Who was he to claim any sort of definitive knowledge?
Asimov countered with this simply reply:
“John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”
The whole point of Asimov’s subsequent essay, entitled “The Relativity of Wrong” is that right and wrong are relative concepts, inherently fuzzy and non-absolute.
While Asimov chooses to argue the point from a scientific perspective, I believe that there are similar parallels to be drawn in the way in which we approach our own lives. Allow me to show you exactly what I mean.
The business case
I know somebody from my university days who failed in business four times before finding success in his fifth business venture. He is open in saying that the skills and experiences he gained from his failed projects were instrumental in his eventual success. Are not, then, failure and success just as fuzzy a concept as right and wrong? After all, my friend’s failures were no more absolute than the misguided assumptions of science through the ages; rather, they were a necessary and component part of an ongoing process of incremental progression and refinement.
Incremental progression is an absolutely vital part of all this in my opinion. Remember, Asimov’s contention was that science isn’t right or wrong in any absolute sense; it is simply more right or less wrong than what came before it. We can and should apply exactly the same non-absolute view to our personal development. Allow me to use my own fitness journey as an example. I have been weight training on and off for a good little while now. Now, I am not athletically gifted in this arena, somewhat below average I would estimate. And yet I have made amazing progress from my personal starting point. Am I strong? In terms of time spent lifting or statistical comparison, probably not. But am I stronger than I was? Yes, massively so. We should always remember that any personal goal is fuzzy in the sense that it is personal to you; and, as such, you should be measuring yourself by incremental progression rather than any absolute marker.
Interpreting the world
Finally, note how the Asimov story cautions us against any absolute interpretation of the world around us. Given that truth and understanding itself is so relative, so nuanced, is it not absurd to interpret our world and the things that occur within it through the lens of a single standpoint? The political ideologue who views everything through the lens of societal oppression. The religious zealot who views everything through the lens of their own faith. The feminist who views everything through the lens of discrimination against women? Just take this controversial recent TV debate between Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman. On the gender pay gap in particular (around 5:50), Peterson is suggesting there are multiple and complex factors at play in the face of Newman’s insistence that it is simply discrimination of women. It’s a running theme throughout the interview and well worth a watch for its illustration of what happens when an argument is approached from a single ideological perspective.
I hope that this brief consideration of relativity has illustrated to you that things are rarely as absolute as they appear, and that understanding this can have a positive impact on the way you live your life. And, should I be wrong, well, I just hope that I’m a little less wrong than I was before…
Cambridge graduate. Writer and thinker. Life enthusiast.