「Failure is Mother to Success」, a more popular and more widely publicized version of 「Only through mistakes will there be discoveries and progress」, has been advocated and championed as an adage of encouragement perhaps since our early childhood, by people ranging from kindergarten nurses, teachers of elementary through middle to senior high schools, to university professors, and even by employer to his employee in the moving story at IBM involving Watson and one of his vice presidents. Admittedly, it is totally possible for Paul Ehrlich, one of the few exceptionally talented scientists in the world, to discover—perhaps under the encouragement of his childhood axiom—a syphilis-curing drug (which he symbolically named 「Formula 606」 as an indication of his perseverance, for he failed for the first 605 trials in developing the drug), thereby making important contributions to the progress of medical science as a whole. Nevertheless, it should also be pointed out that it is seriously misleading to take this apparently encouraging remark as a lifelong principle and to live by this principle. Imagine how you would think if you, still committing mistakes in your great seniority, were approached and admonished with this 「motto」 by your grandson, who received it from his father to whom it was precisely you that had handed it down innumerable decades ago?
The process of 「making mistakes」, especially when it is connected with 「making discoveries」, strongly implies that a human agent, presumably a scientist, is engaged in an act of highly positivistic and empirical scientific research. However, with life being so transitory, we should keep in mind that the wealth of scientific knowledge accumulated by the scientists who precede us can help us effectively and directly head toward discoveries and progress by bypassing possible pitfalls and mistakes. The fact that we can exploit existing scientific findings in a more speedy and fruitful manner precludes us from the necessity to achieve scientific progress by resorting to mistake-making as a source of knowledge, as is advocated by the foregoing argument.
Moreover, the proposition that 「only through mistakes will there be discoveries and progress」 induces the illusion that, as long as researchers keep on undertaking trials and experiments regardless of efficiency and cost, victory will be there automatically and inevitably. The proposition that perseverance will ultimately lead to discoveries and progress further implies that every scientific effort would end up in success. There would never be such a thing as resignation or giving up halfway, as if success can always be guaranteed by an 「anti-failure insurance company.」 But there are instances in which certain scientific missions have to be terminated eternally because the prospect of a discovery is indeed bleak. If we allow ourselves to cherish the blind faith in an ultimate victory, two serious consequences would ensure thereof. On one hand, those mistake-makers would comfortably indulge themselves in committing infinite mistakes, and even blind mistakes. It would scarcely occur to them to make opportune reflections on their sustained failures and to seek fresh and more efficacious perspectives and methodologies. It is pathetic to expect the occurrence of the final miracle which in actuality might would occur. On the other hand, this will also give rise to the development of magnanimous but ill-fated tolerance on the part of the general public for mistake-making. In this case, the general public itself live under the illusory misconception that the perpetrator of constant mistakes would eventually evolve into a scientific genius, given enough time. It is absolutely conceivable that, by being exonerated for committing 「innocent and necessary」 mistakes, the perpetrator tends to contract inertia and indolence on one hand and become increasingly irresponsible on the other, thereby resulting in alarming physical wastes of materials and resources.
In connection with this consequence is the cost of making mistakes. Since making mistakes is generally negative, it carries the implication that a cost must be paid for every mistake. And when it comes to the point that the cost of making mistakes significantly dwarfs the possible benefits that can be derived from a trivial discovery, every sensible person would come to the conclusion that the practice of achieving minor discoveries through making costly mistakes should by no means be encouraged.
It might be assumed that, given the incessant emergence of changing circumstances and fresh challenges, making mistakes is ineluctable and hence excusable. This is, at least in part, an ill-founded pretext for being immature. For one thing, a person who commits mistakes under each changed circumstance or commits the same mistake in similar cases can only be characterized as incapable of maturity. Although a definite demarcation line between maturity and naivety can be identified sooner or later in a person’s lifetime, it is hardly logical to say that a mistake-committing senior citizen has not completed his evolutionary process of de-naivetization when he is virtually on his deathbed. Progress, either personal or social, is absolutely impossible in a state of lasting naivety.
As is universally acknowledged, human beings differ from other creatures in that they are rational. This faculty of rationality functions by endowing man with the ability to foresee and to predict, to make full preparations based on past experience and knowledge for the advent of potential adversities caused by changed circumstances. The capacity for foresight makes it possible for man to be prepared in advance for impending problems, thus eliminating and avoiding mistakes.
The proposed argument is seriously flawed on two accounts. In the first place, by the use of the word 「only」, it posits the committing of mistakes as an absolute condition for accomplishing discoveries and progress, ignoring the foundational importance of the research performed by those scientists preceding us in leading to scientific discoveries and progress. In the second place, the argument is merely negative, based on the act of being erroneous and even fallacious. A more plausible and compelling explanation for human discoveries and progress is man’s intelligence as a rational being, his long-accumulated experience and knowledge that have been proved effective through practice, his sound judgments, his right methodologies in knowing himself and the world around him, and his correct decision-making in choosing the proper course of action.