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Don’t panic!

Nor will we ever run out of problems. The deeper an explanation is, the more new problems it creates. That must be so, if only because there can be no such thing as an ultimate explanation: just as ‘the gods did it’ is always a bad explan­ation, so any other purported foundation of all explanations must be bad too. It must be easily variable because it cannot answer the question: why that foundation and not another? Nothing can be explained only in terms of itself. That holds for philosophy just as it does for science, and in particular it holds for moral philosophy: no utopia is possible, but only because our values and our objectives can continue to improve indefinitely.

Thus fallibilism alone rather understates the error-prone nature of knowledge­-creation. Knowledge-creation is not only subject to error: errors are common, and significant, and always will be, and correcting them will always reveal further and better problems. And so the maxim that I suggested should be carved in stone, namely ‘The Earth’s biosphere is incapable of supporting human life’, is actually a special case of a much more general truth, namely that, for people, problems are inevitable. So let us carve that in stone: PROBLEMS ARE INEVITABLE.

It is inevitable that we face problems, but no particular problem is inevitable. We survive, and thrive, by solving each problem as it comes up. And, since the human ability to transform nature is limited only by the laws of physics, none of the endless stream of problems will ever constitute an impassable barrier. So a complementary and equally important truth about people and the physical world is that problems are soluble. By ‘soluble’ I mean that the right knowledge would solve them. It is not, of course, that we can possess knowledge just by wishing for it; but it is in principle accessible to us. So let us carve that in stone too: PROBLEMS ARE SOLUBLE.

That progress is both possible and desirable is perhaps the quintessential idea of the Enlightenment. It motivates all traditions of criticism, as well as the principle of seeking good explanations. But it can be interpreted in two almost opposite ways, both of which, confusingly, are known as ‘perfectibility’. One is that humans, or human societies, are capable of attaining a state of supposed perfection – such as the Buddhist or Hindu ‘nirvana’, or various political utopias. The other is that every attainable state can be indefinitely improved. Fallibilism rules out that first position in favour of the second. Neither the human condition in particular nor our explanatory knowledge in general will ever be perfect, nor even approximately perfect. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity. [64-5]

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