Fallibilism as a way of being and acting

“People sometimes say explicitly that they are fallibilists, but inexplicably they are ‘saying’ (or a part of them is saying) that they are infallibilists. They say people are fallible and not omniscient, but they act as if they think people see the truth yet are wickedly choosing evil.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


Decades ago, I sometimes used to advocate fallibilism in a dogmatic, infallibilist-sounding way. Some of my old writing reads as if I was thinking that truth is manifest, that I myself know the truth, and that disagreement implies wilful wickedness. (Unfortunately, some of my new writing reads that way too!😳 Working on it!)

“The theory that truth is manifest—that it is there for everyone to see, if only he wants to see it—this theory is the basis of almost every kind of fanaticism. For only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth; for only those who have reason to fear truth conspire to suppress it.”

– Karl Popper, 1962, Conjectures and Refutations, Introduction, VI, p. 8

Yet I could never understand why some people thought there was dogma in my ideas. I thought at the time that such criticisms were mistaken. As a fallibilist, I held that human beings are fallible, that there is no authoritative source of knowledge, that there can be no authoritative justification for knowledge, and that what determines whether there is dogma or not is about how the idea is held (whether open to criticism or not) rather than how it is expressed. Logically, it is perfectly possible to be open to criticism while expressing an idea strongly. These critics need to pay attention to the substance, not the form, I thought. What they really want, I thought, is for me to sugar-coat or water down my ideas—to lie. When hearing or reading my Taking Children Seriously ideas, parents often assumed that I must mean something more like their own paternalistic approach, no matter how clear I thought I was being, so it seemed like a very bad idea to (as I thought I was being asked to) water my ideas down. If my ideas were not clear to people when I was expressing them as clearly as I could, how on earth would anyone get them if I were sugar-coating them instead of saying what I actually think?

I now see that my critics had a point. Or that there was a grain of truth in their criticism. The way I was being in my writing was not consistent with the very thing I was trying to argue for: fallibilism. I was making the rationalist mistake of fetishising the explicit and ignoring everything else. I was in effect saying: read my explicit argument (which I saw as the substance) and ignore (stop focusing on and criticising) how I express it (which I saw as mere form). I did not see that what I was thinking was just the form was in fact substance.

My current idea of fallibilism includes not just saying and explicitly thinking that one takes the view that human beings can be mistaken and that there is no authoritative source of knowledge, but also being that way—not just paying explicit lip service to the idea, but that idea fully informing one’s actions, way of being, and ways of viewing and interacting with other fallible human beings.

If my way of being and the way I am viewing another fallible human being is saying, in effect, “truth is manifest—that it is there for everyone to see, if only he wants to see it” and that what I am saying is the infallible, inerrant revealed truth, and that “only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth”, then the way I am being and acting is expressing infallibilism, however much I say explicitly that I am a fallibilist.

Fallibilism informing our way of being and acting and how we view and interact with others does not mean pretending that there is no such thing as right and wrong, or being blind to wrongness. But it does mean that the way we view and interact with others others is informed by the idea that they are doing the best they can with the knowledge they have in that moment (in their conscious minds psychologically innocent) even if what they are doing is bad, as opposed to being consciously aware of the truth and wilfully choosing to do the wrong thing (wilfully wicked).

Given that some people do some very bad things, isn’t this idea of viewing people as being psychologically innocent in effect letting them off the hook? Minimising their wrongness?

No, it is being fallibilist. It is in effect saying that truth is not actually manifest. It is saying that people do the wrong thing because of a lack of knowledge rather than wilfully evading the manifest truth. It is saying that each of us can only solve the problem we ourselves see in each moment. There is no way to jump to a better problem situation as if by magic. It takes creativity. And we can only ever start from where we are.

Where we are may be somewhere not very good. There may be anti-rational memes operating there that are outside our conscious awareness. We may have at some point (perhaps as a survival coping mechanism in response to coercion) unconsciously entrenched some ideas, and now we have all that stuff interfering with our ability to solve problems, and often we have no clue that that is the case. The solution we think we have found is sometimes terrible, sometimes morally wrong, sometimes harmful to our children or others, and we do not see that it is bad, or if we do, we have no idea in that moment how to create a better solution.

We are all doing the best we can given our own unique problem situation in each moment. We are fallible human beings who make mistakes. We lack knowledge. We are not omniscient. We all mean well: our conscious experience of ourselves is that we are innocent, trying our best, always trying to do the right thing.

When we lose sight of the fact that even when people are doing very bad things they are doing the best their mind has to offer in that moment, the way we interact with them tends to be punitive and shaming: coercive. Because we think they are acting wrongly, it feels right to trounce them, just like if someone is being physically attacked it is right to fight to defend the person from the attack, and sometimes that might involve hurting or even killing the attacker.

I used to say to those criticising me for sounding dogmatic: “It is wrong not to tell the truth about morality. How will they realise that what they are doing is wrong if nobody ever tells them it is wrong?” (Doesn’t that remind you of the attitude of coercionist parents?)

What I failed to see at that time was that when we interact with others as if we think them wilfully wicked rather than making an innocent mistake, it is as if we mistakenly think that truth is manifest and that we ourselves are in possession of the revealed truth. Why is that a problem?

First, we are fallible and not omniscient and we might well be horribly mistaken in any number of ways. What if we trounce them, and we are actually mistaken? Then we have done objective harm.

Secondly, we are being coercive. Coercion interferes with the growth of knowledge. Coercion impairs creativity. Coercion throws a spanner in the works of our ability to solve problems and learn. Coercion hobbles people.

When we do the trouncing thing—the ‘straightforward criticism’, as I might have called it back then—the giving people “unwanted answers to unasked questions” as Karl Popper put it, we are engaging in coercive education, just like coercive parents and teachers do, and thereby sabotaging the growth of knowledge that could make a positive difference, just like they do.

Even if we are criticising this or that wrong behaviour on the internet rather than directly saying it to the person, if what we say seems to suggest that we are sure we are in possession of the manifest truth, and that any disagreement with our position implies wilful wickedness rather than an innocent mistake by a fallible human being who is not omniscient, our words are likely going to be coercive—for example, raising the disturbing question or fear in people’s minds, “Am I evil?” Such writing is going to be conveying infallibilism as a way of being, acting and viewing and interacting with others.

We may be paying explicit lip service to the idea that we think that human beings are fallible and that they lack knowledge—we may say we are fallibilists—but the way we are being is infallibilist. The way we are viewing other people and interacting with them or writing about them is infallibilist. The way we are acting is infallibilist.

Actions speak louder than words, because the words we say explicitly are just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the iceberg—the inexplicit, the unconscious—is below the waterline. And when we fetishise our explicit arguments and expect other people to pretend not to hear the deafening communication of our actions that are saying the opposite of what we explicitly say or think we are saying, we are making the rationalist mistake, and in this case being coercive too.

When we accuse others not just of wrongness but of wilful wrongness—of consciously knowing the manifest truth yet wilfully choosing evil instead of choosing good which they could have chosen (instead of assuming that they might be making an innocent mistake because they are a fallible human being and do not have the knowledge that would have made it possible for them to act rightly), we are being infallibilist. That way of being tends to be coercive when we do it with coercive parents, just as it tends to be coercive when parents do that to their children.

Notice, also, the effect on ourselves of this kind of infallibilist attitude. Notice how we ourselves feel when we are viewing people as being wilfully wicked instead of as making an innocent mistake. We might be feeling upset, angry, disgusted, revolted. Like trouncing them. Not much room for compassion, curiosity, creativity, or connection there. Not much room for knowledge creation.

Why should we have compassion for such horrible people doing vile things? Why would we ever want to connect with such nasty coercive people? Why not avoid them like the plague instead? Or trounce them on the internet?

Not just for them. Not just to avoid being coercive to them. Not just to act in alignment with our explicit fallibilism. Not just because we can actually see more clearly (including that something is bad, wrong, a mistake) when we are not blinded by negative emotions.

Also for ourselves.

When we feel upset, angry, disgusted, or like trouncing others, that does not feel good to us. That is not a state of mind in which we are at our most creative. That is a state of mind in which we are inadvertently throwing a spanner in the works of our own creativity, let alone theirs.

Those states of mind are not ones in which problem-solving is flowing freely. In those states of mind we are less able to solve the problems we ourselves face, than if we have not lost our compassion, our ability to connect, and our understanding that human beings are fallible and lack knowledge.

When we are able to view other flawed fallible human beings kindly even when they are doing the wrong thing—when we view them and what they are doing in a wider context instead of not seeing their humanity and their psychological innocence and their lack of knowledge—not only are we seeing and interacting with the good that is there in that person, we are also not interfering with our own ability to solve problems.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, ‘Fallibilism as a way of being and acting’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/fallibilism-as-a-way-of-being-and-acting/

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