Tag Archive: fallibility

The necessity of pushing freedoms to the extreme

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme’; not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility, when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side. [ch. II, 28-9]

Knowledge without dogma

I have tried to show that the most important of the traditional problems of epistemology — those connected with the growth of knowledge — transcend the two standard methods of linguistic analysis and require the analysis of scientific knowledge. But the last thing I wish to do, however, is to advocate another dogma. Even the analysis of science — the ‘philosophy of science’ — is threatening to become a fashion, a specialism. Yet philosophers should not be specialists. For myself, I am interested in science and in philosophy only because I want to learn something about the riddle of the world in which we live, and the riddle of man’s knowledge of that world. And I believe that only a revival of interest in these riddles can save the sciences and philosophy from narrow specialization and from an obscurantist faith in the expert’s special skill, and in his personal knowledge and authority; a faith that so well fits our ‘post-rationalist’ and ‘post-critical’ age, proudly dedicated to the destruction of the tradition of rational philosophy, and of rational thought itself. [xxvi]

The eternal danger to liberty

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.

The belief in the ignorance of experts

As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. …

I am trying to inspire the teacher at the bottom to have some hope and some self-confidence in common sense and natural intelligence. The experts who are leading you may be wrong. …

I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television — words, books, and so on — are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science. …

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation. [187-8]

Liberating science from authority

Empiricism never did achieve its aim of liberating science from authority. It denied the legitimacy of traditional author­ities, and that was salutary. But unfortunately it did this by setting up two other false authorities: sensory experience and whatever fictitios process of ‘derivation’, such as induction, one imagines is used to extract theories from experience.

The misconception that knowledge needs authority to be genuine or reliable dates back to antiquity, and it still prevails. To this day, most courses in the philosophy of knowledge teach that knowledge is some form of justified, true belief, where ‘justified’ means designated as true (or at least ‘probable’) by reference to some authoritative source or touch­stone of knowledge. Thus ‘how do we know … ?’ is transformed into ‘by what authority do we claim … ?’ The latter question is a chimera that may well have wasted more philosophers’ time and effort than any other idea. It converts the quest for truth into a quest for certainty (a feeling) or for endorsement (a social status). This misconception is called justificationism.

The opposing position – namely the recognition that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying ideas as being true or probable – is called fallibilism. To believers in the justified-true-belief theory of knowledge, this recognition is the occasion for despair or cynicism, because to them it means that knowledge is un­attainable. But to those of us for whom creating knowledge means understanding better what is really there, and how it really behaves and why, fallibilism is part of the very means by which this is achieved. Fallibilists expect even their best und most fundamental explanations to contain misconceptions in addition to truth, and so they are predisposed to try to change them for the better. In contrast, the logic of justificationism is to seek (and typically, to believe that one has found) ways of securing ideas against change. Moreover, the logic of fallibilism is that one not only seeks to correct the misconceptions of the past, but hopes in the future to find and change mistaken ideas that no one today questions or finds problematic. So it is fallibilism, not mere rejection of authority, that is essential for the initiation of unlimited know­ledge growth – the beginning of infinity. [8-9]

Popper prevails

Popper’s epistemology has, in every pragmatic sense, become the prevailing theory of the nature and growth of scien­tific knowledge. When it comes to the rules for experiments in any field to be accepted as ‘scientific evidence’ by theo­reticians in that field, or by respectable journals for publication, or by physicians for choosing between rival medical treatments, the modern watchwords are just as Popper would have them: experimental testing, exposure to criticism, theoretical explanation and the acknowledgement of fallibility in experimental procedures. In popular accounts of science, scientific theories tend to be presented more as bold conjectures than as inferences drawn from accumulated data, and the difference between science and (say) astrology is correctly explained in terms of testability rather than degree of confirmation. In school laboratories, ‘hypothesis formation and testing’ are the order of the day. No longer are pupils expected to ‘learn by experiment’, in the sense that I and my contemporaries were – that is, we were given some equipment and told what to do with it, but we were not told the theory that the results were supposed to conform to. It was hoped that we would induce it. [331-2]

The scientific ideal

I have sometimes found myself on the minority side of fundamental scientific controversies. But I have never come across anything like a Kuhnian situation. Of course, as I have said, the majority of the scientific community is not always quite as open to criticism as it ideally should be. Nevertheless, the extent to which it adheres to ‘proper scientific prac­tice’ in the conduct of scientific research is nothing short of remarkable. You need only attend a research seminar in any fundamental field in the ‘hard’ sciences to see how strongly people’s behaviour as researchers differs from human behaviour in general. …

A senior politician might say in response to criticism from an obscure but ambitious party worker, ‘Whose side are you on, anyway?’ Even our professor, away from the research context (while delivering an undergraduate lecture, say) might well reply dismissively, ‘You’d better learn to walk before you can run. Read the textbook, and meanwhile don’t waste your time and ours.’ But in the research seminar any such response to criticism would cause a wave of embar­rassment to pass through the seminar room. People would avert their eyes and pretend to be diligently studying their notes. There would be smirks and sidelong glances. Everyone would be shocked by the sheer impropriety of such an attitude. In this situation, appeals to authority (at least, overt ones) are simply not acceptable, even when the most senior person in the entire field is addressing the most junior.

So the professor takes the student’s point seriously, and responds with a concise but adequate argument in defence of the disputed equation. The professor tries hard to show no sign of being irritated by criticism from so lowly a source. Most of the questions from the floor will have the form of criticisms which, if valid, would diminish or destroy the value of the professor’s life’s work. But bringing vigorous and diverse criticism to bear on accepted truths is one of the very pur­poses of the seminar. Everyone takes it for granted that the truth is not obvious, and that the obvious need not be true; that ideas are to be accepted or rejected according to their content and not their origin; that the greatest minds can easily make mistakes; and that the most trivial-seeming objection may be the key to a great new discovery. [325-6]

It’s all about argument

Only argument ever justifies anything – tentatively, of course. All theorizing is subject to error, and all that. But still, argu­ment can sometimes justify theories. That is what argument is for. [146]

What is an open society, Mr Soros?

The concept of open society is based on the recognition that our understanding of the world is inherently imperfect. Those who claim to be in possession of the ultimate truth are making a false claim, and they can enforce it only by imposing their views on those who differ. The result of such intimidation is a closed society, in which freedom of thought and expression is suppressed. By contrast, if we recognize our fallibility, we can gain a better understanding of reality without ever attaining perfect knowledge. Acting on that understanding, we can create a society that is open to never-ending improvement. Open society falls short of perfection, but it has the great merit of assuring freedom of thought and speech and giving ample scope to experimentation and creativity. [3]

Respecting others’ opinions

The aim in an open society is not to put up with ideas with which we disagree. It is to take them seriously and to criticize them—not necessarily as a way of condemning them, but as a way of trying to understand them, and of testing whether or not they are true, and learning from them, even if learning from them means learning how and where they go wrong.

This is what Popper meant when he said that open society is ‘based on the idea of not merely tolerating dissenting opinions but respecting them.’ Open society is based on respect for other people, for their freedom and autonomy as rational agents—or, as Kant would have put it, for people as ends in themselves. It is not that we regard their ideas as evils that we have to tolerate for civility’s sake. And it is not even that we regard them as the ideas of other people who have just as much right to ideas as ourselves. That, at best, would be paternalism. And it would have nothing at all to do with a recognition of our own fallibility. Respect, on the contrary, means that we take the dissenting opinions of others seriously, and that we regard them as possibly true. It means, in fact, that we treat them as potentially our own—since we want to discover the truth and since we recognize that we may be in error—and it means, for this reason, that we try to do everything in our power to criticize them and to show that they are false. [33]