Sunday, 11 August 2013

Fallibilism

These words, according to a preacher who I enjoy listening to, were found written by a patient in an insane asylum:

Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade
Then to write the love of God above
Would drain the oceans dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky

"Fallibilism" is a hallmark of pragmatist philosophy. Fallibilism, as I know it, is a principle that says that human knowledge is limited and temporal and, because of this, liable to err. It is a philosophical version of the great Kurt Gödel's number theoretic insight that any finite axiomatic system (or set of logic statements that define an arithmetic system) is, by nature, incomplete.

Neither epistemological version (mathematical or philosophical) say that it is pointless to explore and discourse on what human beings can know (in fact, both are confirmations of the tremendous power of logic constraints in their ability to generate insights (statements) not immediately obvious nor predictable even by the authors).

For eg, Einstein's theories of relativity are a set of mathematical equations that, as it turns out, imply and capture the mechanics of physical phenomena that were unknown at the time of his constructing them - black-holes, the expansion of the universe, etc. and these are embedded within the mathematics and roll out naturally within the given possible solutions to the equations. There is no jerry-rigging, no adding of provisos or whatnots after the facts are discovered. These solutions are inherent in the system, neither known nor predicted by Einstein...mathematics has a way of doing this; this is its divine quality, as if mathematics done well was the very language of God himself.

At the other end of the spectrum, the world of the very small - also initiated by Einstein's special theory of relativity - is quantum physics. A hugely successful mathematical description of the mechanics of the atom generating such things as the periodic table of elements which, by logic, allowed even the prediction of elements unknown at the time.

There really are limits to these theories (as with all human knowledge). There is no way of reconciling the mathematics of the continuous (general theory of relativity) with the discreet (quantum physics) given our current understanding of maths. The greatest minds have tried and failed up to this point. But, they've discovered wonderful things also in the process of attempting it. Dirac, for eg, came up with an equation of the electron that, by all accounts of these greatest minds, "gives more than is humanly possible". His equations predicted the existence of anti-particles...

None of these powerful theories say anything about the human condition. Einstein, the greatest of them that constructed these theories, said this:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.

and this:

The important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing.

Einstein's fame is not limited to just his scientific discoveries, but touch upon his political views, his admonishments to use technology and scientific knowledge with practical wisdom (phronesis) and not just by ego-wishes and questions of economic gain (ie, with ethical and moral reflection guiding our uses of them) captured most succinctly in this quote:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

God, and the divine nature of creation, were never discounted by him as mere superstitions. In fact, he has much to say about God and spirituality: "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."

Now, why did I quote an insane person at the beginning of this entry? It is to capture that infinite "mystery" Einstein talks about and that which informs and forms his apparent humbleness. This, to me, is the very essence of the principle of fallibilism.

Jay

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