What do you mean by ‘fallible’?

“What do you mean by ‘fallible’?”

‘Fallible’ means can be mistaken, can make mistakes. All human beings can be mistaken. Not everything we think is true is actually true, even if we feel 100% sure it definitely is true. No matter how strongly we feel that we are right about something, we might well nevertheless be mistaken. The subjective feeling of certainty is no guide at all to whether or not something is true. We can feel totally certain about something and yet be totally mistaken.

That does not imply that absolutely everything we think is completely mistaken. We can be right on occasion. Some of what we think might be true.

But given that we can be mistaken in anything we think, there is no reliable way for us to distinguish which of our ideas are true. We are always and only able to judge using our own thinking, which is fallible – can be mistaken.

There are no authoritative sources of knowledge, and nor is there any reliable means of justifying knowledge as true or probable.

Some readers may contend that a particular philosophy, world view, body of knowledge, spiritual system, or religious text is an authoritative source of knowledge that is outside human rationality or lack thereof, and infallible (i.e., cannot be mistaken).

Suppose I were to agree that your particular religious text or whatever is infallible and that it is an authoritative source of knowledge. That raises the question: who is it who is reading that religious text if not fallible human beings? Notice how different people can read the same text and each fervently believe that their interpretation is correct, and even each believe that they are not interpreting it at all, and yet they all disagree with one another about what the text says and means. So even if it were true that your text or system were 100% reliable, authoritative and infallible, that still would not mean that fallible human beings would be able to read it without making any mistakes. So there is no authoritative source of knowledge for us fallible human beings who can be mistaken in anything we think. Nor is there any reliable means of justifying knowledge as true or probable, because we are all fallible, so we cannot be sure, in any particular case, that we are not mistaken.

Even our own personal experience is fallible. For more about that, see this post: Is it necessary to reject authority?

If you remain unpersuaded, or for the joy of having your mind well and truly blown about all this, read David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality, followed by The Beginning of Infinity.

Taking Children Seriously takes human fallibility seriously. It is a fallibilist philosophy. It takes into account that human beings really are fallible – that we humans can be mistaken even when we feel certain that we are right. It takes into account that there is no authoritative source of knowledge, and there can be no authoritative justification for knowledge. That does not mean that there is no such thing as knowledge, or that objective knowledge is impossible. Taking Children Seriously is not relativism. Problems are soluble, objectively, in reality. Progress is possible, and has happened.

For example, there was a time when human beings could not fly, but now we can. There was a time when we did not have smart phones. Now we do. Yay! There was a time when we had no idea that it would be a good idea for doctors going from one patient to another to wash their hands thoroughly between patients, and many patients died as a result. Now, we have that knowledge. But if doctors had not been open to the idea that they might be mistaken in their theories, they would presumably have continued not washing their hands and inadvertently killing patients. It is because they realised that they are fallible and might be mistaken that they were open to the new and objectively better idea.

What does all this have to do with parenthood, life with our children, and taking children seriously? In disagreements between parent and child (including those in which the child has not explicitly stated his wish or counter-argument, such as when a two-year-old child so-called ‘has a tantrum’), paternalistic parents mistakenly assume that they are right and their child mistaken. Parents taking their children seriously realise that their view of things might not be correct, and they take that into account.

Problems are soluble, but to actually solve them, we have to be willing to consider the possibility that our particular ideas and wishes might be mistaken. Solving a problem implies a change from when the problem was unsolved. If we will not even consider that we might be mistaken in a given disagreement, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to reach agreement. Paternalism assumes that parents know best and that children need to be controlled for their own good. But parents are actually fallible just as children are, and you are either fallible or not fallible. There is no in between. There is no more fallible or less fallible, or a little bit fallible or very fallible, there is just fallible or not fallible, and every human being is in fact fallible.

When we impose our ideas on another person (including our child), we are overriding their ideas against their will, and we might well be mistaken in what we are imposing. What if all this coercion we are engaging in is wrong? Then we are doing objective harm. Whereas when we solve a problem in a way that sparks joy in both parties, then although, because we are fallible, our solution might still be mistaken, we have nevertheless gone from a problematic state in which there was an obvious disagreement, to a state which both parties prefer, so prima facie, that looks like a problem solved, i.e., progress! Just think about the effect on relationships if the parties solve problems instead of coercing one another.

Being a fallibilist – taking into account that all human beings can be mistaken and that there is no reliable way of discerning when we are mistaken – profoundly affects all our interactions and relationships, replacing the bulldozer of self-righteous seemingly fully justified certitude with the optimistic, gentle, loving, collaborative creativity of voluntarily solving problems together.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘What do you mean by “fallible”?’, https://takingchildrenseriously.com/what-do-you-mean-by-fallible/

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