Irenic Thoughts

Irenic. The word means peaceful. This web log (or blog) exists to create an ongoing, and hopefully peaceful, series of comments on the life of King of Peace Episcopal Church. This is not a closed community. You are highly encouraged to comment on any post or to send your own posts.



Fallibilism is the idea that our knowledge
is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision
in the face of new evidence.

Fallibilism says:
Here's what I know to a moral certainty,
know well enough to live by.
But I could be wrong.
Kwame Anthony Appiah (1954- )

Appiah is a modern philosopher who gives as the short answer to the question "What's your philosophy?" the following:

Everything is much more complicated
than you first thought.

In a commencment address at Swarthmore College, he said,
...the expansion of human knowledge this planet has seen of late has been enormous and accelerating. Carpaccio's St. JeromeWhen I was an undergraduate, my biochemistry tutor gave me a print of one of Carpaccio's great murals of St. Jerome. Years later, looking at the original in Venice, it struck me that the shelf of books behind the saint - his library - contained almost everything that he would have thought worth reading, and he would surely have read all of them. Now, a single web site may contain millions of times the number of pages that St. Jerome could have read in his lifetime. Once, to have heard the range of music that you can scan on your radio, you would have had to travel thousands of miles, hoping be on time for the right performances. Your DVD collections may well contain more hours of acting than Samuel Pepys - that devoted theatergoer - saw in his entire lifetime. There used to be a time when the proof of a new mathematical theorem was a rare and noteworthy event; and now? Something in the ballpark of seventy-five-thousand new mathematical theorems were proved just last year. (I have this on good authority, although, of course, I could be wrong.)

...So here's a conundrum for you. The past century has been an age of unprecedented scientific and scholarly mastery; it has also been an age of unprecedented bloodshed. Given everything our species has learned about historiography, literature, engineering, sociology, molecular biology, algebraic topology, and the rest, why haven't our ethical attainments kept pace? If we're so good at math, why haven't we become whizzes at morality?

You may take it as an extra-credit assignment, on which you'll be graded by posterity; I certainly can't pretend to have the answer....Across much of the planet, we honor, in words, anyway, ideals such as liberty and equality and, not least, tolerance.

Yet tolerance, too, is more complicated than it looks. We can't suppose that mindless tolerance of cruelty and repression is a virtue. Yet how much evil is done by fanatics who can't countenance the possibility that their beliefs, sanctioned by ideological or religious authority, might conceivably be mistaken! Make moral conviction as common as Coca ColaHere, then, is one of the uncompleted tasks of our era: to spread fallibilism - not skepticism about the truth or indifference to it, but just the glimmering recognition that one may not be in full possession of it - from the empyrean of scientific fact to the hardpan of moral conviction: to make it as common as Coca-Cola. People say that common sense is the ability to see what's in front of your eyes. But even madmen and extremists can see what's in front of their eyes; so, again, I think it's more complicated than that. Common sense, I'd prefer to say, involves the ability to see what's in front of the other fellow's eyes. That's what makes it something we might have in common.
I think this could be the middle path between the desire to express certainty about things we don't fully understand and the opposite desire to throw up our hands and say that we can't know anything. From a Christian perspective, we know that we don't have God's point of view on anything, even God's view of ourselves. All knowledge is then contingent on new revelations as God may not feel you are ready for everything at once. Given that, a little humility is not a bad thing, which I think is at the root of fallibilism. What do you think?

the Rev. Frank Logue, Pastor



  • At 10/11/2007 6:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    A little humility goes a long way; ie...Jesus, Mother Teresa, Saint Francis of Assisi...

  • At 10/11/2007 7:38 AM, Blogger Victoria said…

    Finally a philosophy I can agree with. Humility is key as it is not even possible for a human to be infallible.

  • At 7/28/2008 4:50 PM, Blogger Tempered Deviation said…

    But thats just it. Nothing is infallible. At all. Zero infallibility. I think that is his meaning more than any comment about humanities obvious fallibility.


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