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☞ A Box Of Stories
David Deutsch on Fallibilism
“The fact is, there’s nothing infallible about “direct experience” (…). Indeed, experience is never direct. It is a sort of virtual reality, created by our brains using sketchy and flawed sensory clues, given substance only by fallible expectations, explanations, and interpretations. Those can easily be more mistaken than the testimony of the passing hobo. (…)
This logic of fallibility, discovered and rediscovered from time to time, has had profound salutary effects in the history of ideas. Whenever anything demands blind obedience, its ideology contains a claim of infallibility somewhere; but wherever someone believes seriously enough in that infallibility, they rediscover the need for reason to identify and correctly interpret the infallible source. (…)
[Popper]: [A]ll ‘sources’ are liable to lead us into error 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?’ (…)
Popper’s answer is: We can hope to detect and eliminate error if we set up traditions of criticism—substantive criticism, directed at the content of ideas, not their sources, and directed at whether they solve the problems that they purport to solve. Here is another apparent paradox, for a tradition is a set of ideas that stay the same, while criticism is an attempt to change ideas. But there is no contradiction. Our systems of checks and balances are steeped in traditions—such as freedom of speech and of the press, elections, and parliamentary procedures, the values behind concepts of contract and of tort—that survive not because they are deferred to but precisely because they are not: They themselves are continually criticized, and either survive criticism (which allows them to be adopted without deference) or are improved (for example, when the franchise is extended, or slavery abolished). Democracy, in this conception, is not a system for enforcing obedience to the authority of the majority. In the bigger picture, it is a mechanism for promoting the creation of consent, by creating objectively better ideas, by eliminating errors from existing ones.
“Our whole problem,” said the physicist John Wheeler, “is to make the mistakes as fast as possible.” (…) [T]hat only means that whenever possible we should make the mistakes in theory, or in the laboratory; we should “let our theories die in our place,” as Popper put it. (…)
[L]essons can be learned to prevent them from happening again. “We are all alike,” as Popper remarked, “in our infinite ignorance.” And this is a good and hopeful thing, for it allows for a future of unbounded improvement.
Fallibilism, correctly understood, implies the possibility, not the impossibility, of knowledge, because the very concept of error, if taken seriously, implies that truth exists and can be found. The inherent limitation on human reason, that it can never find solid foundations for ideas, does not constitute any sort of limit on the creation of objective knowledge nor, therefore, on progress. The absence of foundation, whether infallible or probable, is no loss to anyone except tyrants and charlatans, because what the rest of us want from ideas is their content, not their provenance. (…)
Indeed, infallibilism and nihilism are twins. Both fail to understand that mistakes are not only inevitable, they are correctable (fallibly). Which is why they both abhor institutions of substantive criticism and error correction, and denigrate rational thought as useless or fraudulent. They both justify the same tyrannies. They both justify each other.”
S. J. Gould, F. Drake, L. Nimoy, J. Cage, A. Hammer on the Meaning of Life
“The first thing I look at each morning is a picture of Albert Einstein I keep on the table right beside my bed. The personal inscription reads “A person first starts to live when he can live outside of himself.” In other words, when he can have as much regard for his fellow man as he does for himself. I believe we are here to do good. It is the responsibility, of every human being to aspire to do something worthwhile, to make this world a better place than the one he found. Life is a gift, and if we agree to accept it, we must contribute in return. When we fail to contribute, we fail to adequately answer why we are here.”
— Armand Hammer, American business manager and owner, physician (1898-1990)
“I find the question “Why are we here?” typically human. I’d suggest “Are we here?” would be the more logical choice.”
— Leonard Nimoy, American actor, film director, poet, musician and photographer
“Observations of distant galaxies have produced provocative evidence for a startling idea: Our universe was just one bubble in a great fountain of bubble universes springing from the Big Bang that created all reality. Given billions of years of evolution, sophisticated living structures have developed, including creatures conscious of their universe, able to manipulate it in massive ways. There is no doubt that life will have developed in many places in our universe. Our own significance, our ultimate potential and our ensemble of possible destinies will be understood by finding and studying the other intelligent creatures of space. Thus a prime task is to seek out other intelligent civilizations and to share knowledge with them.”
— Frank Drake, American astronomer and astrophysicist“No why. Just here.”
— John Cage, American composer, music theorist and writer (1912-1992)
“The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.
Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.
We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.”
— Stephen Jay Gould, American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science (1941-2002)
In the eighteenth century, philosophers considered the whole of human knowledge, including science, to be their field and discussed questions such as: did the universe have a beginning? However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists. Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said, “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.” (…)
However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist.”
For me, both philosophy and science lose all their attraction when they give up that pursuit - when they become specialisms and cease to see, and to wonder at, the riddles of our world. Specialization may be a great temptation for the scientist. For the philosopher it is the mortal sin.”
Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never traveled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.”