Moral Fallibilism: Interpreting a Language Older than Words

know-nothing-socrates“Man will become better when you show him what he’s like.” –Anton Chekhov

What is it like to be human? What does it mean to be a seemingly finite human being in an otherwise infinite reality? Let’s be honest with ourselves: we are fallible and confused. We are prone to make mistakes and usually wrong about the conclusions we make. We are in all ways uncertain, and we’re even uncertain about our uncertainty. We make gross errors, and we do it quite often.

Because of this, we are hypocrites par excellence. But the question isn’t whether or not we are hypocrites, the question is: what are we going to do about our inherent hypocrisy. Are we going to embrace it and discover healthier ways of being aware of it, or are we going to avoid it and continue our rampant suppression and dissociation? One answer is to use a basic scientific approach known as fallibilism, and then to further capitalize upon the precept by practicing it under a moral light.

Fallibilism is Latin for “liable to err.” It is the understanding that we can never know anything for sure and is implied within the sciences. The basic claim is that all human knowledge could, in the end, due to our fallibility as a species and our inherent hypocrisy, be completely and utterly mistaken.

In the most commonly used sense of the term, fallibilism implies an openness to new evidence that may refute a previously held opinion or belief while recognizing that any claim, scientific or otherwise, validated today may need to be revised or even withdrawn in light of new evidence, new disputes, and new encounters in the future. It is the logical conclusion of the secret of open-mindedness. It embraces human fallibility and is therefore a benchmark toward understanding the human condition in relation to an ever-changing reality.

it_is_the_mark_of_an_educated_mind_to_be_able_to_entertain_a_thought_without_accepting_it__2_aristotleIt stands to reason that any and all so-called answers will be discovered within the reality that we find ourselves questioning. Governing this precept, it further stands to reason that we can use this reality as a benchmark for whether or not our “answers” should be accepted. That is, whether or not it should be accepted as right or wrong. Keep in mind, we will still misinterpret the information, but at least we’ll be looking in the right spot.

At least the horse of our reasoning will be in front of the cart of our questioning. Reality holds the “answers,” whether or not we can ever grasp them. Trying to achieve answers should be like trying to achieve enlightenment, both may be unachievable, but the journey is the thing in both cases.

When we turn the focus of our learning upon the natural interconnected order of things, instead of on disconnected human opinion, we discover that the answers we come up with will be closer to being “right.” Like Aldo Leopold said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Or Louis Agassiz: “Go to nature; take the facts into your own hands; look, and see for yourself.”

The first thing we need to do is base the concept of right/wrong in the realm of objective truth, instead of in the realm of subjective opinion. We do that by allowing the concept of “right” to mean “healthy” and the concept of “wrong” to mean “unhealthy,” thereby grounding the concept of right and wrong within the dictated, natural truth of cosmic law. We do this so that healthy/unhealthy can be as close to “objectively determined” as possible. Otherwise the concept of right/wrong is weighed down by the subjective opinion of good/evil.

By shedding the subjective concepts of good/evil from the determining concepts of right/wrong we allow for the objective concepts of healthy/unhealthy to emerge as a guide toward a “somewhat” objective moral principle. I say “somewhat” because there can never be a completely objective moral philosophy. Morality is a briar patch. So is philosophy, for that matter. And they always will be. We just have to get better at not getting unnecessarily pricked by avoidable thorns. And the best way to do that is living in healthy balance with nature. Like Zeno said, “The goal of life is living in agreement with Nature.”

Rumi quoteThe difficult part is figuring out what is healthy and what is unhealthy, and then what to do about it. We do this by observing, listening to, and cooperating with nature and what it is dictating to us as being the healthier way to live in accordance with it. The simplest thing nature dictates to us is that we need air to survive. If we go just a few minutes without air, our system shuts down and we die.

The next simplest thing nature dictates to us is that we need water to survive. If we go more than three days without it, our system shuts down and we die. Simple. And if anybody is “of the opinion” that it’s healthy to go without air, or to go without water, then their opinion is most definitely wrong and invalid (Nietzsche’s Perspectivism). Such opinions simply do not matter and are completely irrelevant to healthy progress.

Nature dictates what is healthy and what is unhealthy. We only have to develop ears keen enough to hear it, eyes wide open enough to see it, and minds wise enough to interpret it correctly. Like Dr. Daniel Wildcat said, “I believe that if I can sit out there long enough, those crows, the trees and the wind, can teach me something about how to be a better human being. I don’t call that romanticism, I call that Indigenous Realism.”

As it stands in today’s modern world, the nexus between human nature and the biotic community has been split. The symbiotic interaction between people and place has been hidden by the smoke and mirrors of the modern collective ego which projects a shiny veneer of hyperreality that blinds us to the fact that our roots are in the earth. Derrick Jensen said it best, “Like the layers of an onion, under the first lie is another, and under that another, and they all make you cry.” Through the tears of our bamboozlement we may begin to see the unwavering thickness of the deception that has been laid upon us for the entirety of our lives, and we may even begin to peel back that thick-like-molasses deception to reveal the throbbing vulnerability of our naked ignorance which lies beneath.

The truth hurts, it cuts deep, but if we can intuit its lesson we can become healthier people, even within an otherwise unhealthy society. Einstein pinpointed it when he said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” It’s time to remember the gift. It’s time to peel the layers of deception back. And the most effective tool at our disposal is the Occam-like razor of moral fallibilism.overthinking

We’ve hitherto been insulated by institutionalized ignorance. This institutionalization has crippled us into unreasonable, unhealthy animals who overthink the wrong things. Our relationship with the biotic community is practically non-existent. There ceases to be any organic intimacy between the human animal and the natural world.

We’ve forgotten that culture is a product of nature, and we seem intent upon turning nature into a product. But as Aldo Leopold said: “The land is not a commodity that belongs to us; it’s a community to which we belong.” We cannot see this because we’ve been homogenized by a system that is hell-bent on transforming the diversity of life into a bureaucracy.

But bureaucracy is antithetical to life. Living systems cease to be healthy when they become bureaucratic. Thus are we unhealthy. Like Derrick Jensen said, “It’s unavoidable: so long as we value money more highly than living beings and more highly than relationships, we will continue to see living beings as resources, and convert them to cash; objectifying, killing, extirpating. This is true whether we’re talking about fish, fur-bearing mammals, Indians, day-laborers, and so on. If monetary value is attached to something it will be exploited until it’s gone.” And here we are, exploiting resources until they’re gone.

Ask yourself: How has this culture taught me to be a better human being? And then ask yourself this: how might nature be better at teaching me how to be a better human being? Moral fallibilism is the method we can use to become better students to the awesome teacher that is Mother Nature. A language older than words can only be understood and translated through the filter of moral fallibilism; otherwise we become overburdened by individual opinion and the expense of interdependent truth.

Otherwise truth becomes entangled in the unhealthy guts of an unhealthy culture. Like Derrick Jensen said, “I had broken the most basic commandment of our culture: Thou shalt pretend there is nothing wrong.” There is something wrong. Our culture is fundamentally unhealthy and unsustainable. Moral fallibilism is an ethical method of cutting through the screw-tape of an unethical society.

There comes a point at which the universe dictates to us the nature of right & wrong: healthy & unhealthy. And there comes a point where we must choose to accept this dictation and become healthy, or continue to ignore it and remain unhealthy. This point is at the center of every moment. It speaks a language older than words. It’s in the air we breathe. It’s in the trees that create that air. It’s in the water that moves us. It’s in the moon that moves the tides. It’s in the body, resonating within an ancient muscle memory.
yin-yang-of-world-hunger_final-net
Like Mary Oliver said, “You only have to let the soft animal part of your body love what it loves.” You have to be in a state of no-mind to hear it. You have to be silent and tranquil to realize how loud it really is.

It can be as simple as the body telling us when we’ve consumed too little water (or too much), or as complex as the cosmos pinpointing for us what is the healthy way for an interdependent human being to live in an interconnected world (or what is an unhealthy way).

In many ways we can tap into the natural order of things through common sense alone, like the feeling we get in our gut when faced with a decision between truth and deception (red pill/blue pill), or how we intuitively know that rape and murder is wrong. Don’t be afraid to use Nature as a guide. Don’t be afraid to use Pain as a guide. Both are superior teachers to almost everything else except maybe a good sense of humor.

At the end of the day, we are, as Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote, “personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society we grew up in.” Moral fallibilism is a superior tactic for achieving a more ethical society. Through the trial and error of human limitation through science and by relying more upon perfecting questions rather than answers, we will, like the Fibonacci sequence seeking to attain the perfection of Phi, get ever so closer to perfecting the fallible human condition in relation with the infallible cosmos.

We will get ever so closer to achieving a more mature and moral society. Like Stefan Molyneux said, “It only looks impossible because a truly free and peaceful society has yet to be achieved. But once we get there, and we will, people will look back at governments as ridiculous, bloody, and evil hangovers from the primitive and drunken adolescence of our species.” We can only hope, and through such hope remain circumspect with our implementation of the superior method of moral fallibilism.

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Inhumane yin yang

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  • Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.

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