Fallibilism: Saying what you believe without insisting

This would be our Socratic starting point: Say what you believe, but do not insist that it must be true or that your belief cannot be incorrect. Stated this way, the position looks a lot like fallibilism.

Key to our understanding of human beings is the fact that they do err. The desire to find a secure position where mistakes are absolutely impossible sometimes goes by the name of the Archimedean standpoint or Cartesian foundationalism or by some other name. The assumption that I cannot ever be in error could, on a personal level, be called arrogance and its accompanying speech act would be insistence.

The possibility that I or someone else may be wrong–wrong in terms of an action or in terms of a belief or set of beliefs–is, I’m submitting, a possibility that needs to be granted at the outset, throughout, and at the conclusion. (There is the obvious paradox–asserting the infallibility of fallibilism–but put this off to the side. Perhaps we had better let go of the idea of a ‘position’ and think rather of a fallibilist attitude, disposition, or frame of mind.)

Suppose we take seriously the thought that when we think or utter something we may be wrong. Might this not induce in us a sense of fear or a profound doubt that what we’re saying, thinking, or doing may turn out to be incorrect? If so, why think or believe or act at all? Or if one does believe, why state it in front of others?

Because what we believe–to take but the cognitive domain–may turn out to be true and to have the right account associated with its veracity. We would like to know, and conviction or lack thereof is not identical with knowledge: the intensity of a belief tells neither in favor or against the truth of that belief. When we begin by saying what we believe yet without at the same time insisting that what we believe has to be true, we are effectively saying,

More than anything, I want to know, and I do not care whether I am right at the beginning. For all I say, I know that I could be wrong. Indeed, when I think about it, I would rather turn out to be wrong and know that I am wrong than believe that I am right without actually being right. What would be especially welcome would be for someone else to show me that I am wrong, if I am wrong, because then I would be open to receiving the truth. Maybe, despite my newfound knowledge that what I had hitherto believed has been shown to be false, the truth has not yet come, but now, at least, I am open to receiving it. By saying all this, I am really saying: Friend, let us inquire together since I am more interested in finding out, whatever it is that I find out, that we find out, than I am with being right.

Insistence blocks openness, where openness is a receptiveness to what is or to what is coming to pass. When one is receptive to what is occurring and when one cares about the object or event, one is disposed to wonder: what is this? What about this? Why is this the case? I do not know–yet. If one discovers something that surpasses one’s comprehension, then one is astonished or amazed. This resplendence is more than I can fathom now.

Saying what you believe without insisting already implies openness, and the stress already falls on wondering whether what you believe is true. Thus are we ready to begin.

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