Why is Fallibility Important?

Fallibility is the philosophical theory which says people can make mistakes, even when they think they didn't, and there is no way to have absolutely certain, final knowledge. Ideas that seem obvious can be mistaken, ideas from authorities can be mistaken, mathematical proofs can be mistaken, scientific theories which have allowed us to build computers and spaceships can be mistaken, and so can all other ideas.

People making mistakes isn't just a temporary fact of life today; it's inevitable. There's no magic process for never making any mistakes at all. But making mistakes is not a disaster. We can fix them. We can improve. No one has to get hurt. As long as we're expecting there to be some mistakes, we can cope with them.

What's important is what we do about mistakes. We should live in such a way that we notice and correct mistakes. What we don't want to do is repeat our mistakes, or cling to them.

Becoming excellent at noticing mistakes takes a certain kind of attitude. If we're ashamed of them, then we're not going to see as many. We'll always be tempted to look the other way. We could force ourselves to try to spot them anyway, but it's not as effective as genuinely wanting to find mistakes. We need an attitude where we're eager and excited to find mistakes. We need to see it as an accomplishment to pursue and be proud of. We also need to listen to criticism from others, and we need to do our best to take their criticism and improve it so it does a better job of revealing our mistakes and weak points.

In order to correct mistakes, we need to be optimistic that there is a solution to find, and happy to look for it. To look for a solution, we need ideas about what might work, and then we need to refine them to be better until they do work. To refine them we need to find their flaws — find ways they are mistakes. We do that with criticism.

A criticism is an explanation of a flaw or problem with an idea. It's valuable and should be treasured not feared. Identifying and understanding problems is a step towards solving them. It doesn't create them; they already existed and were more dangerous when unknown.

The rational attitude to thinking is connected to fallibility. Rational thinking acknowledges we can make mistakes, and tries to find and correct them. Rational thinking accepts we aren't perfect, and tries to improve.

Mistakes are inevitable. But we can control what we do about them. Some ways of life make us stay wrong while others correct our errors.

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By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!