‘Man errs as long as he strives.’ – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It has always been asked in the spirit of: ‘What are the best sources of our knowledge – the most reliable ones, those which will not lead us into error, and those to which we can and must turn, in case of doubt, as the last court of appeal?’ I propose to assume, instead, that no such ideal sources exist – no more than ideal rulers – and that all ‘sources’ are liable to lead us into errors at times. And I propose to replace, therefore, the question of the sources of our knowledge by the entirely different question: ‘How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?’ The question of the sources of our knowledge, like so many authoritarian questions, is a genetic one. It asks for the origin of our knowledge, in the belief that knowledge may legitimize itself by its pedigree. The nobility of the racially pure knowledge, the untainted knowledge, the knowledge which derives from the highest authority, if possible from God: these are the (often unconscious) metaphysical ideas behind the question. My modified question, ‘How can we hope to detect error?’ may be said to derive from the view that such pure, untainted and certain sources do not exist, and that questions of origin or of purity should not be confounded with questions of validity, or of truth. …. The proper answer to my question ‘How can we hope to detect and eliminate error?’ is I believe, ‘By criticizing the theories or guesses of others and – if we can train ourselves to do so – by criticizing our own theories or guesses.’ …. So my answer to the questions ‘How do you know? What is the source or the basis of your assertion? What observations have led you to it?’ would be: ‘I do not know: my assertion was merely a guess. Never mind the source, or the sources, from which it may spring – there are many possible sources, and I may not be aware of half of them; and origins or pedigrees have in any case little bearing upon truth. But if you are interested in the problem which I tried to solve by my tentative assertion, you may help me by criticizing it as severely as you can; and if you can design some experimental test which you think might refute my assertion, I shall gladly, and to the best of my powers, help you to refute it.’
Karl Popper, Knowledge Without Authority
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 and 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.
David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity
The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us; but in the course of time,
Through seeking we may learn, and know things better.
But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,
Nor yet of all things of which I speak.
And even if by chance he were to utter
The perfect truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.
Xenophanes (from Karl Popper’s In Search of a Better World)
Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
Charles Darwin, The Decent of Man
Our moral faculty….is a branch of our reason, not of our sensitive faculty; and must be looked to for the abstract doctrines of morality, not for perception of it in the concrete.
John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
Toleration is the necessary consequence of realizing our human fallibility: to err is human, and we do it all the time. So let us pardon each other’s follies. This is first principle of natural right.
Voltaire (Karl Popper’s translation)
…magic is only a word, not an answer. In itself, magic is a word which explains nothing.
Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man
All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a Demon, than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalise mankind: and for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.
Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason