Fallibility and Rationality

Despite denying the existence of justification and stressing our pervasive fallibility, critical rationalists are actually epistemological optimists. That is, we believe that progress is not only possible but actually the norm. While error is ubiquitous, most of our attempts to correct error are real improvements. While we may often just replace one mistaken hypothesis with another, successor hypotheses are generally better explanations, closer to the truth, and more useful than their predecessors. We can even learn to get better at identifying and correcting errors, and that is what critical rationalism is all about.

However, there is an argument that if our best efforts to correct error may themselves be erroneous, then it must be futile to even try. Criticism, in this view, is powerless unless it comes from an incorrigible source, a window on reality unsullied by subjective judgement. About this manifest truth, there can be no question or disagreement among sane men. To experience it is to be compelled. We cannot doubt or resist, and those who deny are either liars or lunatics. To say that all criticism is itself open to criticism is tantamount to saying that criticism is impossible.

Genuine progress, in this view, cannot be achieved by fallible methods. How, then, can critical rationalists embrace both fallibilism and epistemological progress at once?

For critical rationalists, progress is not measured by subjective confirmation or assurance. That kind of progress is indeed illusory. Though we may feel more or less confident in light of new evidence or arguments, it is always possible that we are most wrong about that which we believe most strongly. For critical rationalists, rather, progress takes a decidedly objective turn. The growth of knowledge is understood as a gradual process of trial and error, conjecture and refutation, or mutation and selection. Progress occurs when old problems are, in actual fact, solved and new problems discovered, when better explanations are found, or the truth better approximated. Whether people feel doubtful or confident, dogmatic or sceptical, is neither here nor there.

In this view, epistemological progress began even before there were subjective experiences and beliefs. There is a continuum between the parochial knowledge embodied in organic structures and the universal abstract products of human minds (science, philosophy, mathematics, etc.). In a sense, our genomes must first “know” how to create beings capable of having experiences and beliefs. This gradual evolution–this growth of knowledge–that made us possible required nothing like subjective assurance or confirmation to be successful.

Objectively, the enterprise of science and human rationality, critical discussion, conjecture and refutation can and, we conjecture, do work. If that is the standard of progress, then progress is indeed possible without the subjective assurance of a “manifest truth”. This is, in a nutshell, how critical rationalists can be both fallibilists and epistemological optimists.

About Lee Kelly

Amateur philosopher
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6 Responses to Fallibility and Rationality

  1. Rafe says:

    We can be optimistic as long as the conditions for learning exist, as indeed they did before humans emerged with consciousness, language and science as we know it. What are the conditions for learning? Or alternatively, what could stop learning?

    Popper did a very short but interesting thought experiment about the way that progress in science might be stopped. This is near the end of The Poverty of Historicism in Section 32.


    “How could we arrest scientific and industrial progress? By closing down or controlling laboratories for research, by suppressing or controlling scientific periodicals and other means of discussion, by suppressing scientific congresses and conferences, by suppressing Universities and other schools, by suppressing books, the printing press, writing, and, in the end, speaking. All these things which indeed might be suppressed (or controlled) are social institutions. Language is a social institution without which scientific progress is unthinkable, since without it there can be neither science nor a growing and progressive tradition. Writing is a social institution, and so are the organizations for printing and publishing and all the other institutional instruments of scientific method. Scientific method itself has social aspects. Science, and more especially scientific progress, are the results not of isolated efforts but of the free competition of thought. For science needs ever more competition between hypotheses and ever more rigorous tests. And the competing hypotheses need personal representation, as it were: they need advocates, they need a jury, and even a public. This personal representation must be institutionally organized if we wish to ensure that it works. And these institutions have to be paid for, and protected by law. Ultimately, progress depends very largely on political factors; on political institutions that safeguard the freedom of thought: on democracy.”

  2. Bruce Caithness says:

    John Zachary Young published “Programs of the Brain” in 1978, after he retired as head of the Anatomy Department at University College London. Young was also the author of the esteemed biology textbook “The Life of Vertebrates” 1950.

    He proposed that the lives of human beings and other animals are governed by sets of programs written in their genes and brains. The essence of a living thing is that it is organized and acts to maintain its organization. He states that the capacity for believing is a mode of operation that is not learned by experience. Without the capacity to believe a new born baby could not function at all. He quotes Quinton (1973) that the concepts of logic are a priori not empirical, they are not learned by correlation with empirical things or states of affairs.

    Many of our actions as the days proceed involve continual search by the eyes, ears, nose and brain for items of interest or satisfaction. The eyes in particular are never still while we are awake. The brain programs cause them to search the world for information. We spend our lives trying to fit the events that we see to the programs of our expectations.

    Popper may have been before his time but other thinkers were making a similar tentative journey, even the poets.

    Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), in The Glass Bead Game, wrote a poem which is a worthy mantra both to expectation and scepticism, as opposed to cynicism:

    A Compromise

    The men of principled simplicity
    Will have no traffic with our subtle doubt.
    The world is flat, they tell us, and they shout:
    The myth of depth is an absurdity!

    For if there were additional dimensions
    Beside the good old pair we’ll always cherish,
    How could a man live safely without tensions?
    How could he live and not expect to perish?
    In order peacefully to coexist
    Let us strike one dimension off our list.

    If they are right, those men of principle,
    And life in depth is so inimical,
    The third dimension is dispensable.

  3. Bruce Caithness says:

    Following on from my T Z Young comment I was pleasantly surprised when I watched the film “Prometheus” to hear Noomi Rapace’s scientist character, Elizabeth Shaw, answer a question (about how she could justify her hypothesis) in this critically rationalist way. Maybe one underestimates the sympathy practicing scientists and now script-writers have of Popper’s way of thinking.

    [after Holloway has given his presentation about the pictorgrams to the crew]
    Fifield: So you’re saying we’re here because of a map you two kids found in a cave, is that right?
    Elizabeth Shaw: No.
    Charlie Holloway: Yeah. Um…
    Elizabeth Shaw: No. Not a map. An invitation.
    Fifield: From whom?
    Elizabeth Shaw: We call them Engineers.
    Fifield: Engineers? Do you mind um…telling us what they engineered?
    Elizabeth Shaw: They engineered us.
    Fifield: Bullshit!
    Millburn: Okay, so uh…do you have anything to back that up? I mean, look, if you’re willing to discount three centuries of Darwinism, that’s…wooh! But how do you know? Mm?
    Elizabeth Shaw: I don’t. But it’s what I choose to believe.

  4. Bruce Caithness says:

    Jenny Teichman and Katherine Evans published “Philosophy a Beginner’s Guide 3rd Edition” in 1999 for the general reader and new undergraduates. It is still for sale. It is written in a clear and fluent style and is well organized and engaging. I do however have reservations about the content and perspective particularly in the science and logic sections. The following review perhaps highlights points that Lee Kelly made above.

    The bias towards empiricism and inductivism is subtle but like the force of gravity it exerts a relentless dogmatic pull in the analytic philosophy tradition.

    It starts with the prime example used in many textbooks, including this one, to illustrate deductive logic, the “modus ponens” argument

    1. All men are mortal
    2. Socrates is a man
    3. So Socrates is mortal.

    Deduction consists in drawing conclusions which follow resolutely from their premises.

    Induction, in contrast, generalizes beyond the evidence e.g. if we observe only black swans we illicitly generalize that all swans are black. The problem for induction is that such generalization involves infinite regress and is thus unsound. There have been attempts to preserve inductive inference by saying that the generalizations are only probably true. Reams of defence have been written but the jury is still out and I predict it will be out forever.

    Karl Popper had the temerity to base scientific inference (falsifiability) not on the “modus ponens” but rather on the “modus tollens” argument:

    If Socrates is a God, then Socrates is immortal
    Socrates is not immortal,
    Therefore Socrates is not a God.

    And in more familiar terms in science:

    If the theory is true the inference is true
    The inference is not true
    Therefore the theory is not true.

    Or, in practice, in a less naïve manner

    If the theory is true the inference is true
    The inference doesn’t seem to be true
    Therefore the theory is probably not true.

    The subtlety is that for Karl Popper, rather than the observation or sensation being primary the theory or hypothesis is. Thus one starts off with a guess or theoretical hunch and then tests it against the evidence. You do not derive theories from observations as is claimed in induction. The guessing is in-the-main unconscious, for example the egg or embryo begins with the genetic algorithms and thence metabolic and neurological algorithms that become tested and modified against experience. Even the instruments that are used to photograph the earth or human cells, and indeed the unassisted eye, function due to algorithms or coding. These are “theories”. No matter how hard we try we can not get away from a theoretical basis for perception – what is DNA if not a collection of molecular codes? A swan is black is true only and if only a swan is black. The beauty of this conception, if we can speak of theories as beautiful, is that it removes the subjective dogma e.g. “I know” or “I think” from knowing. Knowledge can be and is primarily non-tacit.

    Extending to science, when also through speech and writing, knowledge is made objective and thus open to criticism from multiple sources, the Baconian fantasy of knowledge being derived from observation is turned on its head. I find it frustrating in this technological age, when primary school aged pupils understand the notion of programming in computers, that the old ordered empirical chestnut as a model for science, as quoted by Teichman and Evans, is still rolled out:

    “1. Collecting observations, perhaps also conducting experiments, and recording the data and results.
    2. Careful scrutinizing,i.e. thinking about, the data and the results.
    3. Acknowledging that if a large body of facts turns out to be inconsistent with the current theory then everything, including the theory itself, will have to be checked.
    The overall method described is obvious and rather banal. Its generality means it fits many branches of science.”

    What is banal is that even after Karl Popper’s many books on the matter this is still rolled out. Popper tipped this on its head. What comes first is the hunch.

    Unfortunately the analytic, and even more so the phenomenological, tradition cannot let go of the security blanket of inductivism. Is there a doctor in the house to help wean us from the myth that probably-certain knowledge can be obtained, probably, by generalising from uncertain observations?

    My objections to Teichman’s and Evan’s otherwise well written book may appear to be quirky but I would suggest to give credit to Kuhn’s notion of paradigms or more rigorously to Popper’s Metaphysical Research Programs that textbook authors and curriculum developers are so wedded to inductivism that they don’t even realize they are trapped in unhappy wedlock.

    Popper’s legacy has unfortunately been that he is brushed off in a few paragraphs as a naïve falsificationist and then summarily executed by Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend. It is a pity he has been relegated to straw man status.

    Objectivity cannot rest on being free of preconceptions but rather on one’s readiness to test them and to listen to arguments against them. Living beings are not blank slates, nor are scientists. Singular observation statements should be used to criticize theories rather than trying to justify them.

  5. Constantius says:

    One of the most striking aspect of it all is that, even if we seem to think that a REAL improvement has occurred in our understanding of something, there’s actually no way to ascertain that this apparent progress is real. Just as we cannot determine whether we have obtained the truth (which is accepted as the benchmark in CR Philosophy), we cannot also determine the reality a any apparent progress!

  6. Lee Kelly says:


    There is no way to ascertain that any ‘REAL improvement has occurred’, at least if you are referring to infallible confirmation by some manifest truth. The sceptical arguments are just too strong. This is not a problem that can be solved, and if we should make it our goal, then we should never gain, understand, or explain any knowledge at all. Instead, we should spend all our time just trying to convince ourselves that we’re right–an all too common trap for philosophers.

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