Fallibilism

Fallibilism as a philosophy was advanced by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his Commencement address at Swarthmore in May 2006. Perhaps it applies to Anglicans.

Appiah began his address:

Often I find myself seated next to a stranger on an airplane who asks me what I do. Sometimes I say I'm a philosopher. The commonest responses are:

(1) An expression that combines boredom and alarm, and the end of the conversation (which leaves you with the pretzels and the soda, and the really fascinating article from the Review of Metaphysics you've been meaning to get to for a couple of years) and

(2) "So, what's your philosophy?"

To that question, I usually reply: "Everything is much more complicated than you first thought." In philosophy at least, that really is my philosophy. So, I can tell the truth and we can both get back to those wonderfully inviting pretzels.

The truth, I said: I happen to be a great believer in objective truth. But one way in which things get more complicated than you thought is that I am also a great believer in what philosophers call fallibilism. Fallibilism is the idea that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in the face of new evidence. Fallibilism says: Here's what I know to a moral certainty, know well enough to live by. But I could be wrong.

He continues on the subject of tolerance:

Yet tolerance, too, is more complicated than it looks. We can't suppose that mindless tolerance of cruelty and repression is a virtue. Yet how much evil is done by fanatics who can't countenance the possibility that their beliefs, sanctioned by ideological or religious authority, might conceivably be mistaken! Here, then, is one of the uncompleted tasks of our era: to spread fallibilism - not skepticism about the truth or indifference to it, but just the glimmering recognition that one may not be in full possession of it - from the empyrean of scientific fact to the hardpan of moral conviction: to make it as common as Coca-Cola. People say that common sense is the ability to see what's in front of your eyes. But even madmen and extremists can see what's in front of their eyes; so, again, I think it's more complicated than that. Common sense, I'd prefer to say, involves the ability to see what's in front of the other fellow's eyes. That's what makes it something we might have in common.

Read the address here.

Read more on Appiah here

Comments (9)

Great post Ann. It's the first time I've heard of something called "fallibilism" but it's not the first time I've thought about it.

I was invoking the same point in my blog post yesterday when I mentioned St. Augustine and Gödel in the same sentence. Augustine's idea that humanity is so far gone from our original glory that our belief that we can not use our reason to figure our way to truth reliably seems to another way to arrive at the same point as the article. And Gödel's Theorum which says that there are things which are true, but which can not be proven to be true by logic seems to be saying the same thing.

I only know of one antidote to our inherent fallibility. That is to gather the broadest group of people into conversation and find a consensus. It's messy and slow and frustrating as all get out to folks, but over the course of history it seems to work. Kind of like democracy...

There are certain resonances here, too, with apophatic spirituality. On which, perhaps, more later, if time permits. But see Pseudo-Dionysius, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton and others if you are curious.

Bravo, Ann. Good stuff.

Two take-home quotes for me:

1) "Common sense, I'd prefer to say, involves the ability to see what's in front of the other fellow's eyes. That's what makes it something we might have in common." Even if we're not working towards a group consensus, this is something one can do his or her own. Perhaps the reader will think I have in mind the "reappraisers." No, I have in mind those are saying the bishops are hypocrites and those whose say they are not. Try seeing from each others perspective.

2) "Here, then, is one of the uncompleted tasks of our era: to spread fallibilism - not skepticism about the truth or indifference to it, but just the glimmering recognition that one may not be in full possession of it." There will be those who make sure I know their point of view and that I am fed the facts they have and choose to share with me. I also need to be intentional about thinking about those voices that are not heard. At this moment I - and bishops - hear lots of loud voices. Whose voice is not being heard? What perspective would they bring?

On Jim's comment above see his post from last December here,
http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/spiritiuality_site_1/john_and_the_apophatic_way.php

Thanks, Ann. On the flip side, psychoanalysts speak of "pathological certainty," a condition that has been spotted in various people in public life recently...Certainly the tradition of Anglicanism is anything but pathological certainty, and it's nice to have a new word, fallibilism.

I'm glad to see Fr. Knisley's comments about this most excellent post because I think it blends very well with his post yesterday on a catholic response to our current brokenness.

I quote: "For me the first and primary response to brokeness is not to walk apart from each other - it is rather to kneel together at the Lord's table.

I take both St. Augustine's theological anthropology and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem seriously enough that I fundamentally doubt that we can either reason our way or interpret scripture accurately enough to find out way out of our present mess.

It is only by coming together to Christ and being fed from his self-emptying and freely gifted sacrifice that we can be healed.

So given that, our most effective response to the present conflict is to freely and honestly admit our brokeness and that we are stuck in a place we don't know how to get out of. We are in an acute situation, and the first thing to do in an acute situation is to not take an action which would make things worse."

The next step, it seems to me, though I could be wrong, is to have some "common sense" as defined by Kwame Appiah:

"People say that common sense is the ability to see what's in front of your eyes. But even madmen and extremists can see what's in front of their eyes; so, again, I think it's more complicated than that. Common sense, I'd prefer to say, involves the ability to see what's in front of the other fellow's eyes. That's what makes it something we might have in common."

Blessings from Spearfish SD,
Bunker Hill+

"Skepticism about the truth" could have been lifted from some rightwing Papalist. Papal infallibility could be promoted as the truth. There are different kinds of skepticism, some of them quite good, as in Sextus Empiricus. And truth is not an obvious term. There are language-games where truth doesn't matter, such as religion. "God is love," for example, is no empirical observation but rather a way of teaching how to use the word "God." There is no possiblity of making a mistake here.

Finally, literature, downgraded as fiction by philosophers from Plato on, doesn't need any notion of truth in order to merit study. Michel de Montaigne supposedly went through a skeptical phase and produced texts which remain one of the highest embodiments of the Western humanities. Skepticism can do a lot of good.

Gary Paul Gilbert

If I may summarize my previous post:

First - Common Prayer
Second - Common Sense

Blessings from Spearfish SD,
Bunker Hill+

I have been known to say (and especially to students) that I believe certainty may be the sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven, for it seeks to assert knowledge greater than God's. Of course, when I say that, someone is certain to ask, "Are you sure?"

No; but I believe....

Marshall Scott

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