Epistemology for modern Skeptics: II, Fallibilism as an approach to knowledge

Philosophy as a Way of Life
6 min readMar 11, 2022
[image: David Hume (left, britannica.com) and René Descartes (right, philosophybreak.com]

These days we are too darn certain of way too many things we have no business being certain about. Or so I believe. Welcome to modern Skepticism! I am currently in the middle of elaborating a more or less coherent philosophy of life inspired by both ancient and modern Skepticism, and since Skepticism is largely an epistemological stance (i.e., it is about knowledge), this three-part series is looking at what a contemporary Skeptic might have to say about the nature of knowledge. This is important, of course, because everything else in our lives follows from what we claim is or is not true and on what grounds.

Last time we took a quick look at the first of what I think are three pillars of Skeptic epistemology: knowledge understood as a set of coherent beliefs about the world. Today we’ll examine the second pillar, the notion of fallibilism, the proposition that no belief can ever be justified in a way that does not admit the possibility that said belief may, in fact, be false.

If you find fallibilism attractive you are not alone, since the sense in the business is that most epistemologists are, in fact, fallibilists of one stripe or another. Fallibilism in its modern guise began with the work of the American Pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce, though it actually goes back to the New Academy of Carneades and Cicero, during the Hellenistic period of Greco-Roman history.

The first distinction we need to make is between general fallibilism and more restricted varieties. One can be a fallibilist about all knowledge claims, as I’m inclined to be, or a fallibilist about empirical but not logical-mathematical truths. If you think there is no way that 2+2=4 may possibly be false, fine, you can still be a fallibilist about everyday as well as scientific notions. Or, you could strike a middle ground and say that while you are absolutely positive that 2+2=4 you are a fallibilist about your justification for why this is so. (That would be prudent, since it turns out that it is really difficult to actually prove that 2+2=4.)

Let us also briefly consider what fallibilism is not about. Among other things, it is not the notion that all beliefs we currently hold, or will hold in the future, are false. Some, even perhaps most…

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Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/