Critical Fallibilism (CF) is a philosophy of reason. It improves on Critical Rationalism (CR), an epistemology by Karl Popper (and refined by David Deutsch). CF, by Elliot Temple, retains CR’s major ideas and themes. It offers further developments rather than a rival viewpoint.
CF also builds on Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, but I won’t discuss those in this article.
Epistemology is the area of philosophy which deals with ideas and effective thinking. What is knowledge? How do you judge ideas? How do you learn new ideas? How do you improve your ideas? How do you create and evaluate critical arguments? How do you choose between ideas which disagree?
Epistemology offers methods to help guide you. It doesn’t directly tell you all the answers like whether to buy an iPhone upgrade or the right interpretation of quantum physics. Instead, epistemology tells you about how to figure out answers yourself – how to think effectively. Epistemology is about teaching you to fish instead of handing you a fish, but it deals with ideas, which are more important than fish. It explains how thinking works and helps you think better, rather than handing you a list of good ideas.
Everyone already has an epistemology, whether they know it or not. Thinking is a big part of your life, and your thoughts aren’t random: you use thinking methods with some structure, organization and reasoning. You already try to avoid errors and effectively seek the truth. If you consciously learn about epistemology, then you can discuss, analyze and improve your methods of thinking. Don’t be satisfied with whatever you picked up during childhood from your parents, teachers and culture. Don’t just rely on intuition. It’s worthwhile to do better at rationality than an unquestioned cultural default.
A central epistemological idea is fallibility: people are unavoidably capable of making mistakes. And this isn’t just a theoretical issue; mistakes are common (even when people feel confident they’re right). So CF emphasizes finding and correcting mistakes. That’s the key to learning and thinking.
Reason is about being good at finding and correcting mistakes.
Karl Popper’s Critical Rationalism has ideas including:
- Reality and objective truth exist, and we can know about them.
- Humans are unavoidably fallible – capable of making mistakes. We can never guarantee the truth of any of our ideas. And mistakes are common.
- Fallible knowledge is possible, which avoids authoritarianism and skepticism. We can learn without certainty.
- Knowledge is created by an evolutionary process of guesses and criticism. We make progress by brainstorming and using critical arguments to correct our mistakes.
- An important form of criticism is scientific testing. Hypotheses which disagree with experiment are wrong. (Unless you can find a mistake in the experiment or the analysis of it.)
- Ideas should be judged by their content, not their source. Don’t look at credentials, prestige, popularity, or the method of creating the idea. All ideas are guesses with no special status. Judge only by criticism of an idea’s content.
- We should value explanations and solutions to problems.
- Learning is driven by the learner, who always does most of the work; you can’t pour knowledge into a person like water into a bucket.
- We should make piecemeal improvements to existing knowledge (tradition), rather than revolutionarily try to start over from a blank slate.
- We select what to observe, and interpret it, according to ideas we already have. We don’t directly learn from observations; we make guesses first and then use targeted observations to help test those guesses.
- Induction is a myth that doesn’t work. Positivism is an error too.
- We can’t positively support or justify our ideas, but we can learn from our mistakes and make objective progress by rejecting errors.
- The actual history of science follows the CR pattern, not the inductivist pattern (Popper gave detailed examples).
David Deutsch’s improvements to CR include:
- Integrating CR with the modern, neo-Darwinist understanding of evolution (the view of evolution that you may have read about in The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins), and inventing the concepts of static and dynamic memes.
- Criticizing solipsism, instrumentalism and strong empiricism.
- Emphasizing the role of explanation and non-empirical criticism, even in science. Popper knew this and Deutsch overestimates his contribution, but he still helped some.
- Providing a better view of the reality of abstractions than Popper’s three worlds theory.
- Making some connections between CR and physics and information theory.
- Applying CR to parenting and education more than Popper did.
- Developing ideas about bounded vs. unbounded progress, infinity, universality and the jump to universality.
Elliot Temple’s improvements to CR include:
- Yes or No Philosophy explains that ideas should be judged in a binary way: non-refuted or refuted. We can always act on non-refuted ideas, despite having limited resources such as limited time.
- IGC charts (IGC = idea, goal, context).
- Idea trees use tree diagrams to aid thinking and discussion.
- Paths Forward explains how to organize intellectual work to facilitate error correction.
- Criticism of overreaching (don’t let your error rate exceed your error correction abilities) and the inefficiency of doing things when they’re hard (high resource cost and failure risk) instead of learning more first.
- Structured use of meta-levels in discussion and problem solving.
- Integrating ideas from Objectivist epistemology into CR, including about automatizing, practice, mastery, integration, conceptual hierarchies and contextual knowledge.
- An improved understanding of the connections between epistemology and (classical) liberalism.
- Integrating ideas from Theory of Constraints with CR, including about bottlenecks, variance, excess capacity, buffers, focus, tree diagrams, local and global optima, win/win solutions and simplicity.