The Wikipedia page on Fallibilism (currently) makes the intriguing claim that "Fallibilism is related to Pyrrhonistic Skepticism, in that Pyrrhonists of history are sometimes referred to as fallibilists, and modern fallibilists as Pyrrhonists." This school of ancient skepticism seemed to have as a goal the suspension of judgment, and "ataraxia" or the "freedom from distress and worry".

Aside from this, this begs me to wonder, if fallibilism is true and is the idea that anything we believe we know, at any point in history, could be wrong, why should we continue pursuing science? What I thought was ennobling about science was the virtuous question for knowledge and the satisfaction of curiosity, but a falliblist science can offer neither of these. Is the best that can be gained ataraxia?

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    Are you assuming that knowledge/error has a boolean character? As Asimov indicates in The Relativity of Wrong, scientific knowledge is more subtle than this in principle. Commented Jun 25, 2014 at 23:12
  • Because xkcd.com/54/ that's why
    – That Guy
    Commented Jul 4, 2014 at 19:10

11 Answers 11


Your question has some good answers already, so I would just like to mention one more facet regarding the wrongness of belief. Isaac Asimov wrote a wonderful essay, titled The Relativity of Wrong, that you might want to take a look at.

In short, even though everything we know may be wrong in some aspect, we can confidently state that we are less wrong today than we were yesterday, or 100 years ago, or 1000 years ago, etc. To take one of the examples used in Asimov's essay, what is the shape of the Earth?

While the answer 'Flat' is a useful approximation for short distances (the curvature of the Earth is close enough to 0 that it was very hard to measure by early civilizations), we quickly run into big problems describing our planet this way. This is a qualitatively wrong answer.

Answering 'Sphere' is a much better description, and our modern notions of navigation are firmly entrenched in the assumption of a spherical Earth. However, this answer is also wrong - at least in the sense of not being completely, absolutely, 100% correct.

'Oblate Spheroid' is a better answer again. Because the Earth rotates on its axis it bulges slightly at the equator compared to the poles. This is a much smaller correction than moving from 'Flat' to 'Sphere' - so is it fair to say that both answers are equally wrong? Is it not more fair to say that one answer is closer to the truth than the other?

After all, even the 'Oblate Spheroid' answer isn't 100% accurate, either. The southern hemisphere happens to be slightly 'bulge-ier' than the northern one, so to be even more technically accurate you would have to describe our planet as being ever-so-slightly pear-shaped. The difference between our planet and a theoretical oblate spheroid is so small that it took very precise instruments on a specially-designed satellite to detect.

So yes - everything we know will probably be shown to be wrong in some sense at some point in the future. HOWEVER, this does not mean that we will one day say 'The Earth is a cube'!

  • Being 'wrong' in the sense of not being perfectly, 100% accurate is no reason to think that there's no value in being close or close enough.
  • Being 'wrong' in this way does NOT imply that every possible explanation is fair game. The 'Tooth Fairy Theory of Dental Disappearance and Monitory Gain' isn't going to become an accepted explanation any time in the foreseeable future.

Now going back to your core question:

[If] anything we believe we know, at any point in history, could be wrong, why should we continue pursuing science?


  • It is quite reasonable to strive to be less wrong tomorrow than we are today, even if we can never be perfectly correct.
  • Science is a tool with a proven track record in helping us become more correct in our descriptions of our universe and the phenomena within.
  • Ergo, let's keep doing science and see where it leads us! Let's continue to improve on our models, knowing that today's models are better than yesterday's models but not as good as the ones we might have tomorrow.

Who knows what mind-blowing, cool new thing is waiting for us just beyond the horizon of our current knowledge and understanding? What new questions are waiting to be asked? C'mon, let's go find out!


In 1914, C. S. Peirce said (Coll. Papers (1931) I. i. iii. 70):

Fallibilism is the doctrine that our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy.

Those who uphold it must, to avoid contradiction, hold fallibalism as dogma.

Pascal said it well in his Pensées (S25/L406):

Nous avons une impuissance de prouver, invincible à tout le dogmatisme.
[We have an incapacity to prove, invincible to all dogmatism.]

Nous avons une idée de la vérité invincible à tout le pyrrhonisme.
[We have an idea of truth invincible to all Pyrrhonism (skepticism).]


Just because one accepts a fallibilistic view of knowledge doesn't mean that one must abandon the pursuit of knowledge altogether! Yes, insofar as one is a fallibilist one admits that one's conclusions could be wrong, but there is also the possibility that they could be right (or, if one is uncomfortable with the term "right", then something like "the best solution we could ever come up with for a given problem").

Fallibilism is, I think, best seen as a way to pursue knowledge while avoiding dogmatism, by forcing one to always admit at least the possibility that even dearly held and very well supported theories or pieces of knowledge could be wrong.


What should we abandon it in favor of?

Fallibilism has a certain pragmatic streak to it. Because our current methods are fallible, we should abandon them in favor of something better when the opportunity presents itself. But first that opportunity has to present itself, because it would be foolish to abandon the best we have as long as nothing better has come by.

Fallibilism will be a reason to abandon science when something less fallible than science comes along, and it is a reason that we should not stop looking for something better. But as long as it is the least-fallible method we have, fallibilism does not require that we abandon it. Indeed, one could easily argue that it demands we stick with science until something better is found.


Fallibilism is the position that any idea we hold may be wrong. Fallibilism is true. (You might say I shouldn't say this if I'm a falliblist, but you're wrong for reasons I will explain below. All that suspension of judgement stuff is also rubbish.) Any idea you have may be wrong. If you assess ideas using argument then the arguments have premises and rules of inference and the result of the argument may not be true (or probably true) if the premises and rules of inference are false. You might try to solve this by coming up with a new argument that proves the premises and rules of inference but then you have the same problem with those premises and rules of inference. You might say that some stuff is indubitably true (or probably true), and you can use that as a foundation. But that just means you have cut off a possible avenue of intellectual progress since the foundation can't be explained in terms of anything deeper. And in any case there is nothing that can fill that role. Sense experience won't work since you can misinterpret information from your sense organs, e.g. - optical illusions. Sense organs also fail to record lots of stuff that does exist, e.g. - neutrinos. Scientific instruments aren't infallible either since you can make mistakes in setting them up, in interpreting information from them and so on.

We don't create knowledge (useful or explanatory information) by showing stuff is true or probably true for reasons so how do we create knowledge? We can only create knowledge by finding mistakes in our current ideas and correcting them piecemeal. You notice a problem with your current ideas, propose solutions, criticise the solutions until only one is left and then find a new problem. Experiments are useful only as criticism. Ideas can't be derived from experiment any more than from any other set of premises. Rather, the idea is that you work out how the consequences of one theory differ from those of another. Then you conjecture ideas about experimental setups that would enable you to see the relevant consequences and criticise them. Once you have a setup that works about as well as you can make it work you use it to do the test. If the results are compatible with one theory and not the others then you may have successfully refuted some false ideas. Sometimes a purported successful experimental test will be successfully criticised because a test is a conjecture about something that happened and that conjecture may be wrong, so experiments don't prove anything, nor do they support ideas.

The reason why we should look for knowledge is to fix problems with our current knowledge -falliblism is the motivation for creating knowledge. Science is a particular set of habits and institutions for doing this to knowledge that can be experimentally tested. The motivation for doing science is precisely that we are fallible and it is important to fix our mistakes. Since our knowledge is created by conjecture and criticism, to learn you want to make claims that are as strong as possible because such claims can be more easily criticised if they are wrong. So there is no point in hedging or qualifying any position you hold, doing so will make you worse at fixing errors, not better.

As for distress and worry, it's not a good idea to get distressed or worried but that's not go anything to do with fallibilism per se.

See "Realism and the Aim of Science" by Karl Popper, especially chapter I, "Objective Knowledge" by Karl Popper, chapter 1, "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch, http://fallibleideas.com/, http://fallibleliving.com/.


I don't think there needs to be a contradiction. From the wikipedia page:

In the most commonly used sense of the term, this consists in being open to new evidence that would contradict some previously held position or belief, and in the recognition that "any claim justified today may need to be revised or withdrawn in light of new evidence, new arguments, and new experiences."

This approach mirrors very closely to Bayesian inference, in which one starts with a prior distribution (for example, for how likely something is), obtains data, and creates a posterior distribution (for how likely something is given the observed data).

In both science and math, statements are usually made in the form "IF X is true, then Y." Assuming that sound logic was used to derive Y (and, to try to argue that we can't know what sound logic is puts us in a nihilist position), then Y can only be false if X (or some part of X) is false. So, while fallibilism says that any given idea we hold could be wrong, that is very different than saying every idea we have is wrong. Through the pursuit of science, even if some statements turn out to be false, many will end up being true (or close to being true), making everything still worthwhile.


I think there is a little more uncertainty to Dave B's answer. Two points that are commonly debated questions in Science Philosophy, and especially usable/applicable to fallibilists, are

  • The existence of a constant, measurable truth or correct answer. The concept of something being "more correct" or "less false" depends on the existence of a correct answer, or at the very least a measurable form of correctness. If there is no true answer, then saying that one explanation is closer to "true" than another becomes meaningless. There are ways to measure truth, of course, the most common in science being the theory's correlation with evidence and its ability to predict events. However, this method is inherently challenged by the second point...
  • The Induction Problem. This problem states that the only logical reason to believe that any scientific theory, say gravity or that the earth is round, works tomorrow is because it worked yesterday and today. The problem is, there is no way to prove that this logical argument is valid without using circular reasoning. Proof by Induction worked yesterday, but there is no way to show that it will still work tomorrow without using induction. This casts a firm doubt on all science, because regardless of how strong the proof is, we have to take it on pure faith that it will stay the same. Yes, right now, a circular earth is a less false description than a flat one, but how can we know that tomorrow it will stay this way? We can't, logically, so we either take it on faith that things will keep working, or we doubt everything. Scientists have that faith, and so work towards furthering science in the safety of that faith. Fallabilists don't, and understand that there is no guarantee that any progress will hold, if indeed progress is even possible.

The question seems to presuppose that the only thing science gives us are trivial theories susceptible to fallibilism. Just about every item of technology you take for granted on a quotidian basis is the product of scientific activity. Are you willing to abandon the privilege of taking a hot shower in winter; the use of refrigeration to preserve your food and cool your beverages; the farming and agriculture that gets you the food, the logistic systems that transports your food; electricity to power your fridge, heat your water, run your TV, your computer to access the internet, your oven and stove top to cook, lights to illuminate your house at night; your smart phone to check your facebook account or netbanking; the mathematics behind encryption that makes netbanking safe; the vast satellite and telecommunications infrastructure that enables it all; every product derived from petrochemical engineering, metallurgy, chemistry; the pharmaceuticals and medical practices that keep you alive when you’re sick; toothpaste to brush your teeth,…,???- be my guest. Science is not so much the pursuit of knowledge (for its own sake) but the development of man’s agency over his environment.


There are a lot of good answers here already. I want to expand on them a bit.

The simple answer to the question is that not all true or false answers give us the same amount of information, and that there are certain false answers that are closer to the truth than other false answers.

A quick example of this is to say "I am driving at 45mph." Well if I am driving at 44.5mph then that statement is false.

Leave aside the accuracy of instruments, semantic definitions, what that speed is relative to, etc for a moment.

If I said "I am driving at 200mph" but am still driving at 44.5mph it is clear that my first statement is closer to the truth.

Yet both answers are still false. I could also say "I am either driving at 200mph or I am not." A tautology, clearly true. But also clearly less useful than the false statement of "45mph."

This examination of what it takes for one false value to be closer to the truth than another is called Verisimilitude and is a very important concept when considering Fallibilism.

On the topic of science a key distinction is that science isn't out to prove anything. Science disproves over and over and tries to get closer to the truth, but never says it is actually there.

A third related topic I'll throw in is Essentialism which relates to how humans apply essences to the world they interact with. This essentialist nature makes it easier for us to interact with the world and have working "truths" but also helps to widen the divide between our experiences and objectivity.


No, it just means that any science doesn't have universal validity; and one must probe and question to find out what those boundaries are; they may not be fixed once they are found. Sceptism is targeted at universal claims.


Both Peirce and Pascal were devout believers and not at all Fideists.

Fallibilism does not deny that a partial truth is still truth and that one asymptotically approaches closer and closer. We have our certainties but they are not provable in that they are the base upon which our certainties are erected. At base all is faith, so would say the great scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi Newman also focused on faith and reason without denying Truth itself. MP says Truth is best defined as not what you opine but what you act upon

If you can get a writeup of the mystical experience C S Peirce had once when he was at a Church, it made him reverse himself totally

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