Friday, January 20, 2017

Reading #24: Fallibilism and Evidence for Beliefs

Fallibilism and Evidence for Belief

"fallibilism," Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd Ed.  Robert Audi editor.

Fallibilism, the doctrine, relative to some significant class of beliefs or propositions, that they are inherently uncertain and possibly mistaken.  The most extreme form of the doctrine attributes uncertainty to every belief; more restricted forms attribute it to all empirical beliefs or to beliefs concerning the past, the future, other minds, or the external world.  Most contemporary philosophers reject the doctrine in its extreme form, holding that beliefs about such things as elementary logical principles and the character of one's current feelings cannot possibly be mistaken.

Philosophers who reject fallibilism in some form generally insist that certain beliefs are analytically true, self-evident, or intuitively obvious.  These means of supporting the infallibility of some beliefs are now generally discredited.  W.V. Quine has cast serious doubt on the very notion of analytic truth, and the appeal to self-evidence or intuitive obliviousness is open to the charge that those who officially accept it do not always agree on what is thus evident or obvious (there is no objective way of identifying it), and that beliefs said to be self-evident have sometimes been proven false, the causal principle and the axiom of abstraction (in set theory) being striking examples.  In addition to emphasizing the evolution of logical and mathematical principles, fallibilists have supported their position mainly by arguing that the existence and nature of mind-independent objects can legitimately be ascertained only by experimental methods and that such methods can yield conclusions that are, at best, probably rather than certain.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Fallibilism
Fallibilism is the epistemological thesis that no belief (theory, view, thesis, and so on) can ever be rationally supported or justified in a conclusive way. Always, there remains a possible doubt as to the truth of the belief. Fallibilism applies that assessment even to science’s best-entrenched claims and to people’s best-loved commonsense views. Some epistemologists have taken fallibilism to imply skepticism, according to which none of those claims or views are ever well justified or knowledge. In fact, though, it is fallibilist epistemologists (which is to say, the majority of epistemologists) who tend not to be skeptics about the existence of knowledge or justified belief. Generally, those epistemologists see themselves as thinking about knowledge and justification in a comparatively realistic way — by recognizing the fallibilist realities of human cognitive capacities, even while accommodating those fallibilities within a theory that allows perpetually fallible people to have knowledge and justified beliefs. Still, although that is the aim of most epistemologists, the question arises of whether it is a coherent aim. Are they pursuing a coherent way of thinking about knowledge and justification? Much current philosophical debate is centered upon that question. Epistemologists generally seek to understand knowledge and justification in a way that permits fallibilism to be describing a benign truth about how we can gain knowledge and justified beliefs. One way of encapsulating that project is by asking whether it is possible for a person ever to have fallible knowledge and justification.
The term “fallibilism” comes from the nineteenth century American philosopher  Charles Sanders Peirce, although the basic idea behind the term long predates him. According to that basic idea, no beliefs (or opinions or views or theses, and so on) are so well justified or supported by good evidence or apt circumstances that they could not be false. Fallibilism tells us that there is no conclusive justification and no rational certainty for any of our beliefs or theses. That is fallibilism in its strongest form, being applied to all beliefs without exception. In principle, it is also possible to be a restricted fallibilist, accepting a fallibilism only about some narrower class of beliefs. For example, we might be fallibilists about whatever beliefs we gain through the use of our senses — even while remaining convinced that we possess the ability to reason in ways that can, at least sometimes, manifest infallibility. Thus, one special case of this possible selectivity would have us being fallibilists about empirical science even while exempting mathematical reasoning from that verdict.
Fallibilism is an epistemologically pivotal thesis, and our initial priority must be to formulate it carefully. Almost all contemporary epistemologists will say that they are fallibilists. Yet the vast majority of them also wish not to be skeptics. They would rather not be committed to embracing principles about the nature of knowledge and justification which commit them to denying that there can be any knowledge or justified belief. This desire coexists, nonetheless, with the belief that fallibility is rampant. Many epistemological debates, it transpires, can be understood in terms of how they try to balance these epistemologically central desires. So, can we find a precise philosophical understanding of ourselves as being perpetually fallible even though reassuringly rational and, for the most part, knowledgeable?
Just as there are competing interpretations of the nature of epistemic justification, epistemologists exercise care in how they read F. Perhaps the most natural reading of it says that no one is ever so situated — even when possessing evidence in favor of the truth of a particular belief — that, if she were to be rational in the sense of respecting and understanding and responding just to that evidence, she could not proceed to doubt that the belief is true. More generally, the idea behind F is that, no matter how good one’s justification is in support of a particular belief’s being true, that justification is never so good as to be conclusive — leaving no room for anyone who might be rationally attending to that justification not to have the belief it is supporting. At any stage, according to F, doubt could sensibly (in some relevant sense of “sensibly”) arise as to the truth of the particular belief.
Study Questions:
1. In what sense are most contemporary epistemologists fallibilists?  Why are some epistemologists worried that fallibilism leads to skepticism?  
2.  Define knowledge, opinion, skepticism, justification, certainty. In what way do ambiguity, obfuscation, and appeals to complexity contribute to this disagreement? 
3.  What does it mean for a law to be self-attesting?  Does the fallibilist believe anything is self-attesting?  How could one prove that nothing is self-attesting?
4. Contrast the claim that no belief can be conclusively justified, with the claim that many beliefs cannot be conclusively justified. 
5. Contrast justification by evidences, or personal testimony, or common sense, or intuition, with justification by reason. 
6. Explain the relationship between empiricism, externalism, and fallibilism.  In the second paragraph from the Cambridge Dictionary definition above, in what way are the proofs against infallibility reliant on empirical assumptions?
7. What does and what does not require demonstration? (See Aristotle reading #1)
8. Can a fallibilist be certain that a statement he made is actually the statement he made?  Must a fallibilist be concerned for intellectual consistency? 
9. Is fallibilism a neutral position from which to criticize others or does it have presuppositions that need to be identified and proven to be true?
10.  Do any of these follow from fallibilism as defined above:  there is nothing certain; nothing can be known with certainty; nothing is clear; nothing is self-attesting; nothing is transcendent. 
11.  Contextualize contemporary fallibilism as part of the post-modern reaction to modernity, evidence, and reason. 
12.  In what way does fallibilism affect the way that people live their lives and the choices they make?  Their understanding of Christianity and the knowledge of God?  Does fallibilism have any bearing on the claim that it is clear that God exists so that unbelief is without excuse?
Exercises: reply to the skeptic who says:
1.  Prove to me that I'm not a brain in a vat.
2.  Prove to me that I'm not having incorrigible memory lapses.
3.  Prove to me that I'm not being deceived by an evil demon.
4.  Prove to me that my senses are accurate.
5.  Prove to me that a is a.
6.  Explain the category mistakes in the following: I'm not sure we can know that the statements we make are the statements we make.
7.  Respond: You must prove to me that proof is possible.