24. Fallibilism and Dialogue

One of the most amazing things about the world in which we live is the technology of communication.  The written word is printed and distributed quicker than ever before.  We have satellite radio and hundreds of TV channels.  And now we have our cell phones and internet access that enable us to reach out to the world with the touch of a few buttons.  Yet there is another amazing thing about our world, an amazing thing related to the first.  This is that, despite such technological advances, real communication between those who think and act differently is often impossible.  Perhaps this unfortunate contrast is nothing new.  Consider this passage from the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone by Sophocles (368ff): “Many are the wonders, but none is more wonderful than what is man.  This it is that crosses the sea with the south winds storming and the waves swelling, breaking around him in roaring surf.  He it is again who wears away the Earth, oldest of gods, immortal, unwearied, as the ploughs wind across her from year to year when he works her with the breed that comes from horses.”  Man is indeed wonderful.  We master the land and sea.  But the praise in Sophocles’ play is tempered by the fact that it occurs in a context where people are not understanding one another, not listening to one another, and are ultimately killing one another.  So it seems we have a bit of tragic wisdom here: man is the animal who can master nature but cannot master his relationships with other men.  We, at the turn of the millennium, continue to master nature with our latest machines and gadgets while war and genocide continue.

Luckily one of the most common causes of tragic conflict is also found in the Antigone (710ff): “Do not bear this single habit of mind, to think that what you say and nothing else is true.  A man who thinks that he alone is right, or what he says, or what he is himself, unique, such men, when opened up, are seen to be quite empty.  For a man, though he be wise, it is no shame to learn—learn many things, and not maintain his views too rigidly.  You notice how by streams in wintertime the trees that yield preserve their branches safely.”

Sophocles’ message is clear: it is dogmatism, the rigid holding of a view in way that takes no other views into account, that is one of the greatest catalysts to communication breakdown and tragic conflict.  William James, the great American psychologist and philosopher, agreed when he stated that dogmatism is the “root of most human injusticies and cruelties, and the trait in human character most likely to make the angels weep” (see his essay What Makes a Life Significant). This passage is poignant because we live in a world where dogmatism is very often associated with the angels, that is, those religious people who have put aside the trivialities of life to do God’s work.  To think that the angels are weeping as people fight and even kill each other over religion is almost unbearable.

But there is something to be done if we grasp the lesson of the poet: we can adopt a perspective on the world that is anti-dogmatic in order to avoid some of the evils that flow from dogmatism.  I believe this perspective can be found in the philosophical position known as fallibilism:

Fallibilism is the view that no belief can be supported or justified in a conclusive way. 

Note that fallibilism does not mean there is no truth or that knowledge is impossible.  Fallibilism says there is truth and that we can obtain knowledge. What it denies is that there are any certain, that is, beyond doubt, justifications for our knowledge.  Some may complain that if we don’t have certainty we can’t have knowledge. But this is not true.  We can still have knowledge insofar as we provide justifications for our truth claims.  Think of science: all its truth claims are ultimately uncertain since any truth claim in science is only as secure as the last experiment.  Scientists must accept that in the future there may be new evidence that will overturn a theory.  But we don’t say that scientists don’t have knowledge just because they lack certainty.

Now there are many reasons to adopt fallibilism.  Here are a few:

  • Our senses can be unreliable
  • Our memories can be very unreliable.
  • Our reasoning is very often fallacious.  And even when it isn’t, most of our reasoning is inductive and thus can only, at best, establish high probabilities not certainties.
  • A great deal of thinking takes place in language and language is essentially symbolic.  But symbols do not have a natural connection to that which they represent.  So the accuracy of our language and thought, especially when it is taken as representational, is suspect.  Moreover, as the philosopher Charles Peirce argued, all symbolic language is open to interpretation since all symbols need interpreters and no individual’s interpretation is final.
  • There are intelligence limitations that we must face as individuals and groups.
  • And there are situational limitations, that is, everyone sees and thinks from certain perspectives.  These perspectives are not only spatial and temporal; they are also economic, political, sexual, racial, etc.

But perhaps the best reason for adopting fallibilism is that it is a position that helps us to keep an open mind.  The history of human thought is full of mistakes.   By adopting fallibilism as a rule we may hope to avoid many errors we would make if we went on thinking we were certain about our beliefs.  Of course, the above reasons are themselves fallible and indeed fallibilism as a position may be mistaken.  But to refute fallibilism is to prove, beyond a rational doubt, that we have something absolutely certain; and it is difficult to see how we can get such a proof.  Nonetheless, fallibilists will be open to any claims of certainty and will take them seriously lest they, too, become dogmatic.

But now let us ask: how can fallibilism be used to approach meaningful dialogue?  Well, to engage in dialogue is to inquire together and really listen to one another.  But dogmatists do not inquire since they think already have the truth. And they don’t really listen since their minds are made up in advance.  And why would they inquire or listen?  After all, if they believe they have certainty regarding their positions then it follows that everyone who disagrees with them is absolutely wrong. But fallibilism is against dogmatism and thus it opens up dialogue.  If we are fallible then we should, as John Stuart Mill argued in the second chapter of his work On Liberty (1859), listen to others since they may have the truth or a part of the truth.  We should also inquire with others since it is by working together that we can hope to avoid some of the limitations set by our senses, language, reason and unique situations. Again, to quote William James:

“We have unquestionably a great cloud-bank of ancestral blindness weighing down upon us, only transiently riven here and there by fitful revelations of the truth.  It is vain to hope for this state of things to change much.  Our inner secrets must remain for the most part impenetrable by others, for beings as essentially practical as we are necessarily short of sight.  But, if we cannot gain much positive insight into one another, cannot we at least use our sense of our own blindness to make us more cautious in going over the dark places?  Cannot we escape some of those hideous ancestral intolerances and cruelties, and positive reversals of the truth?” (What Makes a Life Significant)

There are indeed many dark places in our so-called global village of concrete and electrical highways.  There are places of oblivion, ignorance, intolerance, and fear that confuse our signals and prevent mutual good will and understanding. But a firm and courageous grasp of fallibilism can help us better navigate such dark places because very often the darkness is the darkness of a dogmatic mind closed to new experience, ideas, and possibilities. Remember the words of Sophocles quoted earlier:

“For man, though he be wise, it is no shame to learn—learn many things, and not maintain his views too rigidly. You notice how by streams in wintertime the trees that yield preserve their branches safely” .

Hopefully more and more people can drop the pretensions of dogmatism and realize that they have a lot to learn from one another as fallible humans.  Of course this doesn’t mean we can’t champion a view and argue rigorously.  Being confident in your argument is consistent with believing that you might be wrong.  But we need to be aware of our limitations and do our best to keep an open mind. I think the future of humanity will, in a large part, depend on our united efforts to work together, learn from each other, and not maintain our views too rigidly.

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