Critical Fallibilism (CF) is primarily a set of ideas about how to think. Thinking includes coming up with ideas, evaluating ideas, learning, making decisions, and taking actions guided by ideas.
CF has philosophical principles and concepts, methods of doing things, and secondary implications. It has both abstract theory and practical advice.
The most central issue in CF is how to judge ideas. Critical Rationalism (CR) has ideas about that, and Theory of Constraints (TOC) provides additional insight. Objectivism (Oism) helps explain aspects of learning omitted from CR or TOC.
Where should you start learning? With the core principles and concepts. The other parts are built around those.
The primary motivation for CF comes from epistemology (theory of knowledge). CF began by finding problems in CR and trying to improve them, and then expanding on those solutions and figuring out implications.
CR’s big ideas are evolutionary epistemology, fallibilism, error correction and critical discussion. CR rejects induction and justificationism (positive, supporting arguments). We learn by an evolutionary process of conjectures and refutations, trial and error, guesses and criticism, brainstorming and searching for mistakes. We learn by finding things to improve, and learning from our mistakes, not by proving we’re right (nor probably right) nor by building up greater confidence in our ideas, nor by building up a larger stockpile of evidence for our ideas. Progress comes from corrections not confirmations.
Oism has big ideas in various fields including moral and political philosophy, art and social dynamics. It’s a more complete philosophical system than CR or TOC. Oism’s big ideas that especially matter to CF are automatization, integration, and contextual knowledge. We have limited conscious attention, so we must make many mental connections automatic and habitual to reduce the burden on our attention, which frees up mental capacity to think about more advanced issues. Progress comes from combining (integrating) parts (ideas) into a greater whole (higher level ideas), which takes less attention than the parts did. And our subconscious is a powerful computer which can be programmed to do stuff for us, so that our conscious mind doesn’t have to. Our main programming tool is practice, which lets us form intuitive, automatic habits. Also, ideas are evaluated in a context, and a new context (e.g. getting new evidence) does not make that prior evaluation incorrect for its context.
TOC’s big ideas include focus, goals, constraints (bottlenecks or limiting factors), local and global optima, buffers (margins of error), excess capacity, variance, big wins (silver bullets), win/win solutions, resolving problems instead of compromising, inherent simplicity, and using tree diagrams to organize thinking. Most of these individual ideas were invented and used elsewhere, but TOC has a unique way of using and combining them. (Similarly, CF uses ideas from CR, TOC and Oism but the overall combination is unique and different.)
To understand CF, you need to learn each of the big ideas from CR, TOC and Oism. I learned them in the order: CR, Oism, TOC. Learning TOC first is best for most people. TOC is easier to understand than CR or Oism. You should expect to revisit each of the philosophies repeatedly because they’re very deep and can be explored at deeper and deeper levels.
CF also has its own original ideas to learn. Its biggest idea is decisive criticism and using only binary (pass/fail) evaluations of ideas. That involves understanding qualitative and quantitative differences and how to convert between them, converting between positive and negative arguments, breakpoints, sub-goals, and giving ideas multiple evaluations (one evaluation per goal per context). CF also discusses organizing knowledge to enable progress (Paths Forward), planning projects, and managing/budgeting resources (including mental energy and error correction capacity).
These ideas combine into a way of thinking which is better at resolving conflicts and reaching clear conclusions. Each idea makes sense individually and provides some value on its own, but the much greater value comes from using them together and understanding their connections. The hardest idea to use alone is the most important one: decisive criticism and binary evaluations. The other ideas help with that major theme. If you understand them all, that conclusion makes way more sense and you’ll be able to use it effectively. Another theme is about organizing thinking effectively, including using mental resources efficiently.
CR said we learn by critical discussion but wasn’t very specific about how to do a good critical discussion. What actions should be taken? How should it be organized? What methods should be used? CR gave some tips but nothing comprehensive. CF fills in this major gap. Society already has a lot of ideas about how to think and discuss rationally, but many of them are vague, ineffective, or refuted by CR – and they’re a disorganized mess instead of a reasonably complete, organized system.
CR also struggled with a question about how to judge one idea as better than another. In short, it said to prefer ideas that stand up to criticism better. Look at the critical arguments, reject the decisively refuted ideas, and then for the non-refuted ideas see how well they survived criticism. Basically you’re looking at how damaging the criticisms were and selecting the least damaged idea. You also look at how much effort went into criticizing an idea – an idea that’s been scrutinized more is considered better. You can look at the damage per critical attention ratio. The main point is not to use positive arguments, as people usually do, because of logical problems with them.
CF solves this dilemma by explaining that strong and weak arguments are a myth. We shouldn’t judge how good ideas are by degree. Ideas should only be judged as refuted or non-refuted. CF provides a system for comparing ideas and reaching conclusions that never claims one non-refuted idea is better than another by degree. CF rejects partial or degree arguments. It rejects medium strength arguments. This is important, both because it provides an original and fruitful way of thinking, and also because there are logical problems with partial arguments – the status quo is broken.
It’s important to have the big picture in mind (particularly decisive arguments, binary evaluations, and managing mental energy) while learning the individual parts of CF. That gives you a better idea of what they’re for and how they’ll be used. This article began that process. You now have a rough idea of the overall structure of CF, what parts exist and what categories to group the parts in (CR, TOC, Oism, CF’s original ideas). That’ll help guide learning.
The next thing to do is to learn more about CF’s major conclusions. Don’t expect full arguments or details, but they can be explained enough, at the outset, for you to know what they mean more and begin to see why they make sense. Then you should learn the individual ideas that contribute to the conclusions. And then revisit the conclusions and learn them in detail. That’s the rough outline but your actual learning process will have more back and forth – you can revisit the conclusions and understand them better repeatedly as you go along.
The goals are to understand how epistemology works, correct logical errors in the status quo, have a practical method for making decisions and judging ideas, be able to resolve conflicts between ideas without compromising (this includes both conflicts between alternative ideas and conflicts between an idea and a criticism of that idea), know how to learn effectively (including inventing new ideas, not just learning existing ideas), and know how to use mental resources efficiently. These skills are important to basically all the rest of your life. They’re general purpose issues like rationality and critical thinking that are used in every other field where ideas matter, which is all of them. It’s not just knowledge workers who need to think well. Athletes, for example, need to understand how to practice effectively, how to be persistent over time about a goal, what strategies to use, how to avoid injuries, what advice to listen to or not, how to tell which experts (e.g. sports medicine scientists or nutritionists) are good, and how to deal with mindset issues – rationality and critical thinking matter to all of those.