The Problem with Fallibilism
The problem with fallibilism is that it is not well understood. Well, there I’ve said it, so why bother going on with this piece? Well I want to attempt to understand why exactly this simple idea is deceptively simple and therefore so easily mistaken for something else. Moreover many who claim to be fallibilists of some kind often turn out to be dogmatists of another kind which means they never were (thoroughgoing) fallibilists to begin with. I don’t like labels - I’d prefer they not be applied to people and instead reserved for ideas as a matter of convenience. Persons are not defined by their ideas but rather the capacity to create them in the first place. Labels tend to negate whatever else a person might say on the topic once you think they are a “rationalist” of some kind, for example. Even the bright and cheery “optimist” label has become a little “cliquey” of late but more importantly it too is too easily misunderstood. “I endorse optimism in David Deutsch’s sense of the word”, I prefer to say rather than answering to “I’m an optimist!” like some yellow pilled cultist with a big silly grin. But fallibilist? Well I don’t much mind admitting I might be wrong and indeed to be accused of as such is never an insult. Even about fallibilism. We will come to that. So call me fallible. I don’t much go in for those “pilled” things though I’ve already mentioned yellow pilled (I don’t know if that is already a thing) but if fallibilism was to be “pilled” I guess it’d be pink. Is it a colour? Isn’t it? It’s not on the rainbow. It’s negative green as some physicists have joked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9dqJRyk0YM
Pink is a kind of mysterious colour. Is it a boy’s colour or a girl’s colour? At one point it was a boy’s (or at least considered “masculine”) now it’s a girl’s https://edition.cnn.com/2018/01/12/health/colorscope-pink-boy-girl-gender/index.html Of course with what I guess can only be called the 2020s “Gender Wars” the meaning of pink is once again up in the air. So if a butch man thinks a pink shirt is just divine is he or isn’t he…you get my meaning. It’s all questions. Get pink pilled.
I tweet now and again that one way to think about fallibilism is simply the stance that “It is always possible to be wrong because there is something to be wrong about”. Very few people are thoroughgoing fallibilists. Even fewer than that recognise fallibilism in others.
The issue is that most people are either dogmatists (at least about something or other) or relativists (increasingly and sometimes even the same people on other issues).
Dogmatism is the misconception there exists something (usually many things, for a dogmatist) about which it is impossible to be mistaken. What is often held aloft are things like “1+1=2”. Pythagoras’ theorem. Everything in mathematics. Much of science. Or, of course, in a conversation with a sufficiently adept fallibilist the dogmatist will retreat like George Custer to the philosophical equivalent of Little Bighorn River: “I think, I exist” - Descartes’ cogito. Their last stand. They think that because they think then they are entitled to assert that it is absolutely certain and impossible to be mistaken at least on that point - they exist. They cannot imagine how it could be otherwise and so their lack of imagination on this point is somehow proof, in their minds, of truth. But why is it important for people to be absolutely certain they are in possession of a final truth? Isn’t simply knowing you exist enough?
Brett, why does the distinction matter anyway? Who cares about the difference between “knowing” and “possessing certain truth”?
It matters deeply for two reasons. (1) Dogmatism everywhere is dangerous and as Popper admonished “The doctrine that the truth is manifest is the root of all tyranny” and (2) because only fallibilism always allows the possibility of infinite progress via continuous error correction.
Admitting you can always be wrong (even about fallibilism) means that there is always more left to learn and understand. When it comes to “I think therefore I am” or just “I exist” as being a statement - indeed logical proposition one can utter as some kind of necessary truth about which one cannot possibly be mistaken - it can be difficult for people to doubt this. They desire a foundation and, following Descates thing “Well this is it! The foundation! I am certain I exist!”
But a fallibilist needs no such foundation. They can pursue instead conjectural knowledge. On this I agree with Descartes: “I exist”. I can say that honestly. There’s no problem here. I can even add, rather unnecessarily, “I know I exist”. That’s enough for me. So rather than say “it cannot possibly be false that I exist” or even “I am certain I exist” I just say “I know I exist”. Or even “I exist”. Just not infallibly. Because I’m not infallible. About anything. Including “I exist”. I can improve my understanding of “I exist” and correct errors in what I think about it. I might not know right now how to improve it, but that is true of almost everything I know so there’s nothing special about that. And much of what we know like “I exist” contains inexplicit content too. Like what “exist” means or what “I” means and so on and on. Much about any claim when you dig deep is inexplicit. Indeed an infinite amount of inexplicit content lies there in an infinite potential well of inexplicit possibility. This infinite depth of the possibility for further understanding underscores the possibility of progress: the possibility for improvement. Optimism.
I cannot say how it might be possible that “I exist” might be false - but this - my failure of imagination on that point - is no proof that it might nevertheless be false. I am a fallible human. There are many things I might be unable to imagine. Now having said all of this, especially saying all of this clearly and indeed coherently and even sometimes passionately then the criticism comes: well you sound terribly dogmatic. Which of course comes down to tone. Or not even tone but rather perceived tone. It’s like homophobia - one doesn’t actually need to be homosexual to experience homophobia. One only has to be perceived to be homosexual. And so too with dogmatism. The thoroughgoing fallibilist holds the position that all dogmatism is wrong is accused then of defending a dogma…about how all dogmatism is wrong. But that is simply a misconception to do with playing word games and trying to hold the fallibilist to the meanings of terms and explanations that the dogmatist insists on.
When I say “this is how it is: fallibilism is the only reasonable stance to take” - people think this is somehow self refuting. Indeed any time one explains any theory at all: matter is made of atoms. Or “I know that evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of species” or “The Big Bang happened” - people throw accusations of dogmatism around. “I know we people are universal explainers” really gets people’s backs up - especially in these times of discussions around AGI and AI. “You can’t know that! Dogmatism! You’re refusing to consider the alternative!” come the accusations thick and fast.
Let us linger on this related point for just a moment. Those who object to the claim “people can understand anything in principle” are arguing for a kind of anti-human alternative that…human beings cannot, even in principle, understand some things?
And yet I, like everyone else in history, has been steeped in that lesson - that people are rather pathetic creatures. I know the argument well. Here let me make the case:
Our memories are limited.
Our brains are finite.
We just cannot comprehend somethings.
You, Brett, don’t even understand the Korean language and yet you claim to have tried!
If you’re a universal explainer find the successor theory to quantum theory right now! You see? You’re not a universal explainer! I’ve just told you two things you cannot understand or do. You’re just dogmatically committed to a faith claim.
But all of that is to ignore the explanation offered elsewhere about all this. I know the retorts and objections. It takes time to appreciate the power of universality - what a deep shift in perspective it takes to appreciate this relationship between what a person is, how they explain and understand by generating models in their mind of anything else in physical reality and that physical reality itself. How, as David Deutsch explains in his TED talk: the one structure comes to resemble the other: the mind and whatever in physical reality it is explaining.
But if one does explain all that and says “that’s the way it is” because that is what we know and we know that because it literally follows from our rational understanding of the world (we reject the supernatural) and…the accusations of dogmatism flow.
Stating “It just is the case that X. We know X. And we know X because our best explanation of science - quantum theory - implies X. Or our best theory of epistemology - conjectural knowledge growth - implies X” is not dogmatic. All those claims might be false. For a fallibilist that goes without saying.
Of course when you do say it, as a fallibilist, the criticism flips. A moment ago the interlocutor accusing you of dogmatism now says “Oh, so you think nothing is actually true?! Relativist!”
This is the experience of the fallibilist. Stating as clearly as possible what we know and making the case with passion and curiosity and dare one say fun and excitement only to have that mistaken for dogmatism. At no point during what I sometimes call my “tirades” - which in truth are really just monologue summaries of explanations about exciting parts of science and philosophy - do I ever presume it’s not possible that I’m wrong. I could always be wrong. But how tedious would that become to add that caveat after every claim?
And as I say, having just made the exciting case for some bit of science or philosophy and being accused of dogmatism and so adding the caveat “no, I can always be wrong because of the universal fallibility of the process of knowledge creation” you are accused of relativism. All this is because the only frame many have is: either you’re certain of certain truths (dogmatic in some sense as they are)…or you’re untethered to these foundational truths of reality entirely and you’re a relativist.
This is the problem with fallibilism. It’s very poorly understood. But that should be expected because we’re all fallible. All is a woven web of guesses.
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