Tuesday, 8 May 2012

An Infallible Proof of My Fallibility

     I tend to follow Rene Descartes' skepticism. If you've even heard of Descartes, you're probably familiar with his famous "Cogito, ergo sum," usually translated as "I think, therefore I am." There was very little Descartes felt we could know with certainty, since all of our sensory experience could be an illusion, but he could infer from the mere fact that he was questioning that, at the very least, the questioner must exist.

     I've come up with a similar proof of something Descartes took for granted: the capacity to be mistaken. The proof goes something like this:

    Premise 1: Anyone who believes something to be true that is in fact false is fallible.
    Premise 2: I believe I am fallible.
    I am either fallible or infallible.
    If I am fallible, then my belief in Premise 2 is correct.
    If I am infallible, then by believing myself to be fallible I believe something false, and am therefore by Premise 1 fallible.
    I therefore must be fallible.

     (Of course, this only proves my fallibility if Premise 2 is true. If you happen to believe you are infallible, well, you are probably mistaken about that, but this proof cannot prove it to you.)

     Now, this seems like a trivial and obvious thing to prove. Of course I can be mistaken. Why would I even entertain the possibility that I might not be? Most of us, if we think about it at all, take our fallibility for granted and then promptly forget about it, adopting beliefs with unwarranted confidence at the drop of a hat. But we sometimes forget that absolutely any idea or thought we entertain, regardless of its original source, remains subject to our own fallibility.

     I mention this because it comes up a lot in the religious context, particularly with the fundamentalist crowd. Fundamentalists and scriptural literalists seem to feel that their own fallibility doesn't need to apply, since it's not their ideas but the literal text of the Bible, the very Word of God, which is the belief in question. In a way, it's an attempt to abrogate cognitive responsibility: "Hey, don't blame me! It's God's truth, not mine! I'm just following orders!" Yet there really is no way to escape the fact that whatever you believe, even if it happens to be true, is written on the flawed paper of your own brain; your knowledge and beliefs are tainted with your fallibility; it's only as reliable as you are.

     This is one of the objections I raise when people try to convert me to their fundamentalist religion. They ask me to accept a set of propositions with a level of certainty that my fallible human brain simply cannot support: I can be wrong, and the thing about being wrong is it feels exactly like being right. I don't care how strongly, how intensely, how confidently I may believe something; the magnitude of my fervour has little bearing on my likelihood of being correct. And so, indelibly tainted with this doubt in my ability to know something with certainty, I simply cannot embrace a set of beliefs which promise to make everything make sense if only I believe them.

     Now, there's an interesting argument that came up in some of these comment threads. If God is truly omnipotent, could He not imbue me with certainty about some truth or other? Well, an omnipotent God by definition could do that, I suppose. And being fallible, of course, I'm in no position to state with complete confidence that I could never be certain of any divinely revealed knowledge. Maybe I could. But it seems to me evident that whatever such a God could do, He hasn't. I remain uncertain about pretty much everything. And more, since I grasp this notion of fallibility and how being wrong feels subjectively just like being right, there seems to be no way for a True Believer to convince me that his knowledge of God's reality is somehow privileged and Really, Truly, Knowledge, and not just another of the countless mistaken beliefs we humans flock to. Sure, they feel like you know, but why should I trust the magnitude of their fervour, when I don't even trust my own?
     They tell me, just believe and I'll see. Okay, I believe that much is true; if I believe the way they do, well, yeah, I'll believe the way they do. Big deal. But then both of us might be believing something false, and they can offer no assurance against that, other than simply reaffirming that I'll "know" (read: strongly believe) we're both right.

     As far as I can tell, the problem is logically insurmountable. And sure, God might have the power to help me overcome it, I'll grant that. But so might Flying Spaghetti Monster. Indeed, any belief that God or FSM or my Lucky Astrology Mood Watch can give certain knowledge can have the same effect. In short, all I have to do to overcome the proof of my fallibility is to deny Premise 2: stop believing I am fallible.

     That's really what they're asking me to do, when you get right down to it. Buy into a belief that asserts my own infallibility with respect to some privileged set of beliefs, to assert that I cannot be wrong about such things. And I'm just not prepared to do that. Oddly enough, I feel it would be terribly impious of me; God (if He exists) gets to know things with certainty, but that's not for us to pretend to.


  1. Tom,


    Are you saying that we can't even be certain we exist?

  2. That's a tough one. On the one hand, Descartes' cogito argument seems pretty ironclad. And yet we're still stuck with this fallibility thing. I suppose the way I would phrase it is this way: I cannot conceive of an alternative explanation than that we do exist, but my human failure to conceive of such a possibility does not necessarily mean one doesn't exist. In short, I'm as certain as it is humanly possible to be that I exist, the key modifier being "humanly possible".

  3. Tom,

    So, you don't know anything then?

    That's my position. That is, if you don't start with God as your epistemological and metaphysical foundation, you can't know anything.

    Tom, do you have an argument or reason for why you think God's knowledge is not "certain"?

    I say that because I believe knowledge is certain.

  4. Yup, I don't know anything. I'm comfortable with admitting that. The only thing I'd add is that even if you DO start with God as your epistemological and metaphysical foundation, you still can't know anything. The difference, of course, is that you convince yourself that you CAN know something in that case, but it's possible to be convinced of things which aren't true.

    I would never say God's knowledge is not certain; God, presumably being perfect and omniscient, would have certain knowledge about everything. But I'm not God, and I suspect you aren't either, and so our knowledge of God is subject to our fallibility. We can be mistaken in our beliefs about God.

  5. Tom,

    You're skepticism is quite hilarious. However,
    it's self-refuting.

    You said "even if you start with God, you can't know anything"

    But you don't know that. remember you don't know anything.

    Tom, could you be wrong about not knowing anything?

  6. It would be self refuting if in fact I claimed to KNOW that I can't know anything. But I don't. Rather, I claim to believe with a very high degree of confidence that I can't know anything. I can't imagine how I could be wrong about that, actually, but that could be a failure of my imagination as much as a triumph of my reason. So maybe I am wrong, even if I can't imagine how.

    Your task is not to convince me that I could be wrong; I grant that already, if only as a vague hypothetical possibility. Your task is to articulate some plausible scenario by which I could genuinely know something, without it being subject to that fallibility I spoke of, and in such a way that I could distinguish between believing (perhaps falsely) that I knew something and KNOWING (without any possibility of error) that I knew something. Like I say, I can't imagine how you might do that, but you're encouraged to try.

  7. Tom,

    First you said "I don't know anything"

    Then, you said " even if you start with God, you can't know anything"

    My question is how do you know that?

    You admitted you don't know anything.

    So, how do you qualify that statement?

  8. Everything I say (and, I believe, everything anyone else says) should be read as including this standard disclaimer: "I believe this is true, but cannot establish it to absolute certainty."

    So I do not claim to KNOW that you can't know anything. I only say I believe it to be so with a very high level of confidence, which I think is all anyone can do.

    Now, that I don't KNOW anything doesn't mean I just adopt any crazy belief that tickles my fancy. I come to my beliefs through a great deal of consideration. In the case of the proposition at hand, "Even if you start with God, you can't know anything", I infer that from the general principle of uncertainty, that knowing something and just (mistakenly) believing that you know something are subjectively indistinguishable experiences. You can feel absolutely certain you KNOW that there's milk in the fridge, and still be wrong. I don't know of any way to distinguish between the mistaken feeling of knowing something, and the actual experience of knowing something.

    So however certain I might feel if I start with God, I still don't know how to tell if I'm mistaken in feeling certain.

    1. Tom,

      Now, you're playing word games.

      So, are you grantingthe possibility then that if we start with God we could be certain of things?

  9. Let me put it this way. I BELIEVE it is impossible, and I believe so rather strongly, based on careful consideration of various arguments over many years. I am as close to certain as it is humanly possible to be that it is impossible. The only thing that stops me from saying I KNOW it's impossible is my awareness of my own capacity for error.

    So in practical terms, no, I'm not granting you the possibility that if we start with God we could be certain of things. If you want me to accept that claim, you will have to argue for it.

    What I AM granting is the possibility of convincing me by argument. If I claimed to KNOW, I would also be claiming that nothing you could say could possibly change my mind, and I won't make that claim.

  10. Tom,

    The biblical claim is that you do KNOW something. That is, that the Christian God exists.

    The outcome of rejecting that claim is a reduction to mere opinions, beliefs, absurdities and extreme skepticism.

    It seems you're not bothered by any of this. It's pretty amazing.

  11. "Mere" opinions and beliefs aren't nearly so bad as you make it sound. I still believe some things with very high confidence. For example, I'd cheerfully wager my life against a grain of rice that I exist, and think that I was getting unfairly favourable odds. I'm pretty certain of that, just not superhumanly certain. I'd be very surprised if I was wrong about it, but in principle I'm willing to be convinced.

    In fact, I'd venture to say I'm as certain about some of my beliefs as you are about any of yours. The difference, I suppose, is that I acknowledge the remote theoretical possibility that I might be wrong. You seem to think I should be troubled at the possibility I could be wrong, but why? I'm more troubled that you don't even realize that you could be wrong.

  12. Tom,

    Wrong about what?

    We can't all be wrong. You see how do you "know" what an error even is?

    There has to be a standard of rightness for you to even be making these claims.

    And that's the Christian God. You see Tom you're in contact with this knowledge but deliberately suppress it.

  13. Why can't we all be wrong?

    And perhaps it's more fruitful to say that I UNDERSTAND what error is, not that I "know" it. Understanding is a more useful concept because understanding admits of degrees, and can be assessed as more or less successful, rather than a rigid binary "true/false". I have a good UNDERSTANDING of what error means, though in principle it could likely be better.

    So why does this need to be rooted in the Christian God, and why do you conclude I must be deliberately suppressing it?

  14. Tom,

    Word games.

    That's the way the Christian God has revealed himself.

    By what or how do you measure or figure out an error?

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  16. The Christian God has revealed himself in the very fact that logical reasoning works, that the universe is to some extent at least intelligible? You know, if that's all you're claiming, that the Christian God is simply a poetic personification of the orderliness of the universe, the laws of nature and logic, then fine, I'm with you. But that really isn't all you're claiming, is it? You want to say that it follows from the orderliness of the universe that therefore the Crucifixion happened and was necessary for our salvation. Sorry, no, you haven't laid anything close to the groundwork necessary to support that kind of inference.

    As for how I identify error, that's a fairly complicated technical question having to do with the structure, function and evolutionary history of the human brain, an organ which evolved with certain capacities to adapt behaviour to survive in a wide variety of environments. Some of the heuristics this brain comes equipped with probably tend to converge towards genuine logical principles, but we're by no means the perfectly rational beings economists like to postulate. So I figure out errors when they trigger a part of my brain that registers some sort of cognitive discomfort, often a paradox of contradiction or the like. When a line of reasoning leads me to a contradiction, I figure there must be something wrong somewhere along the line, and so I look for the weakest link, which is usually one of the starting premises.

    My faculty of reason is not perfect; it evolved to solve various problems so I could survive long enough to pass on my genes to the next generation. In that context, a "good enough" solution is what we get, not a perfectly correct one. I do strive to look deeper and deeper into my thinking, applying those imperfect heuristics on themselves in an effort to refine my thinking to be as precise and logically valid as possible, but I am under no illusions that I will ever attain perfection. All I can do is try my best and think my best, and part of that means always being on guard against ways in which I might become deluded into error.

    You would delude me into error, and a most insidious kind of error at that. The belief that I might be infallible in my certainty about some belief or other is insidious because it undermines the very capacity to identify and correct error when it occurs. Perhaps this is difficult for you to see, because you have fallen into this delusion yourself. You believe you KNOW, and so you close off a world of possibilities from consideration. You seem unable to grasp the nature of my objection, and so you resort to the claim that I am deliberately suppressing knowledge. You would not say that if you understood.

  17. Tom,

    I reject "evolution".

    Precisely my claim is that our sense of rightness is built in. It's not something you learn from experience.
    That standard of rightness is the Christian God.

    So, yes, I am claiming that you do know what an error is. However, you suppress this knowkedge and "replace it" with skepticism.

    That's my next claim. If you reject this knowkedge, the outcome is your position.

    Your position reduces to pretty much incoherence and therefore must be rejected.

  18. Hey, you're trying to convince me that the inborn sense of rightness is the Christian God, remember? You asked me how I can measure or figure out an error, presumably expecting me to say, "Gosh, I dunno. I just kinda have an inborn sense of logic..." Well, I gave an account of where I understand that inborn sense of logic to come from. It's fine if you reject evolution, but I don't, and if you're going to try to demonstrate that my knowing a standard of rightness = my knowing the Christian God, you're going to have to do a lot better than just announce that you reject not only my account, but one of the most robust and well-established scientific theories ever developed. You're going to have to give good reasons why I, too, should reject evolution.

    I don't REPLACE knowledge with skepticism, because skepticism is nothing more than the rejection of claims of knowledge. What I replace knowledge with is understanding; I aspire to understand things, not to know them. (And my knowledge/understanding of what an error is I do not suppress at all; I rely upon it very heavily, in fact.)

    When you say that my position is incoherent, it seems to me what you really mean is that it makes no sense TO YOU. Perhaps this is because you forgo understanding in favour of what you claim as knowledge?

  19. Well, you shuold reject evolution because it's rooted in man's imagination.

    My other point is that, regardless to what degree you claim to understand an error, the standard is there.
    In fact, you know the standard is there.

    In spite of that, you reject God and attempt to make sense out things with your own mind.

    But from a finite and fallible mind comes nothing more than pure skepticism

  20. Evolution is rooted in the natural phenomena of the world, watered with human imagination and insight, and aggressively pruned by rigorous empirical observation and experimentation. You will try to tell me that the Bible is not rooted in human imagination but is God's own truth, but why should I take that at all seriously?

    "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to convince the world that he didn't exist"; this devil is your own imagination and interpretive faculty, and you have managed to convince yourself that they play no role in your received "knowledge" of God, that what you believe is somehow exempt from the taint of your finite and fallible mind.

    Your mind is no less finite and fallible than mine. Every thought that runs through your human brain is subject to the possibility of error. Every thought, including your belief that it's God talking, not you. You are a sinner, imperfect, as I am. The chief difference is that I recognize and accept the limitations of my finitude, while you pretend you know things with divine authority.

    You ask me to sin when you ask me to deny my fallibility.

  21. But you don't know any of that. Remember you may be wrong about everything you claim to believe. I never asked you to deny your fallibility. My point is that there are standards regardless of what any think.

    We all have a sense of God built in. That's why we can learn about the world that were in. Our sense of God assures us we can do these things.

    See deep down inside Tom you have a Christian worldview.

  22. "But you don't know any of that." No, no I don't. So what? You don't get to pick and choose among my beliefs, and appeal to my skepticism only to attack the beliefs you don't agree with, selectively leaving the ones you want to exalt as "knowledge".

    I agree that I have a built-in sense of logic and rationality, but I recognize that sense to be imperfect. I steadfastly refuse to identify that imperfection with a perfect God.

    So yes, in a way, I do have a Christian worldview, but it is radically different from what you think of as Christian. I understand God to be transcendant, infinite in power and perfect in knowledge, and morally flawless as well. Even if I don't believe such an entity to exist in the literal sense, I do regard it with appropriate reverence, and recognize my place relative to it. Increasingly, as I talk to well-meaning apologists like yourself, I come to realize that for all your preaching, you do not know God any better than I do. Indeed, by thinking you do, you stray even farther from knowledge.

  23. "Increasingly, as I talk to well-meaning apologists like yourself, I come to realize that for all your preaching, you do not know God any better than I do. Indeed, by thinking you do, you stray even farther from knowledge."

    But you don't know this. God has clearly revelaed himself in the bible.

    God commands all men to repent and turn in faith to christ.

    Your without excuse. You know this God and know what you are before him.

    A sinner. Open your bible Tom that's how salvation comes.

  24. Perhaps I've allowed things to become a little confused by focussing on how I personally do not know anything, and neglected to emphasize how that awareness of fallibility extends to every thought or idea that might exist in any human mind, and thus to you as well. I don't trust your reasoning or knowledge any more than I trust my own. Indeed, I tend to be even more skeptical of things other people tell me, because there are so many more steps involved where error can creep in. As you fallibly formulate a thought, and fallibly convert it into an English sentence, and transmit it through your fallible keystrokes upon a keyboard made by fallible humans, it finds its way to my screen and must enter my mind through my imperfect eyes and the vision center of my fallible brain, to be parsed by my own fallible linguistic capacities so it can be analyzed by the rest of my fallible reasoning capacity.

    The idea that you seem to be transmitting to me now is that the insights into God I might get through this Bible are somehow more reliable than my skill at reading and interpreting text would otherwise allow. My most direct and most reliable (though still fallible) exercise of the capacity to recognize error, the logical faculty that you yourself tell me is divine in nature, tells me that your claim is impossible. And this Bible is subject to a chain of so, so many more weak links of telling and retelling, translating and retranslating, redacting and re-redacting.

    I view it as sheer idolatry to worship this text as divinely authoritative, and I have argued as much before in my blog posting about Abraham and Isaac. I don't know if God exists or not, but what I understand of the notion of God absolutely precludes His being subordinated to a mere human text. Ask yourself this: If God commanded you to abandon your Bible and forget everything in it, would you? Could you? Or would you reject Him as a false god? If you had to choose between God or the Bible, which would you choose?

    Don't try to wiggle out of it by saying it's impossible, or that He would never do that. All things are possible for God, and we are in no position to tell Him what He would or wouldn't do. Make your choice: God or the Bible? You can't serve two masters. Choose!

  25. Tom I have answered here: