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Why does Objectivism say both positive and negative things about fallibilism? What is Objectivism's position about fallibilism and contextual certainty?


"Man is neither infallible nor omniscient; if he were, a discipline such as epistemology—the theory of knowledge—would not be necessary nor possible: his knowledge would be automatic, unquestionable and total. [...] Nature gives him no automatic guarantee of his mental efficacy; he is capable of error, of evasion, of psychological distortion." - ItOE

"Since men are neither omniscient nor infallible, they must be free to agree or disagree, to cooperate or to pursue their own independent course, each according to his own rational judgment." - CtUI

"Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience—that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible—that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error. In place of your dream of an omniscient automaton, accept the fact that any knowledge man acquires is acquired by his own will and effort, and that that is his distinction in the universe, that is his nature, his morality, his glory." - Galt

"But man’s responsibility goes still further: a process of thought is not automatic nor “instinctive” nor involuntary—nor infallible." - VoS


“Don’t be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything.” Bertrand Russell’s gibberish to the contrary notwithstanding, that pronouncement includes itself; therefore, one cannot be sure that one cannot be sure of anything. The pronouncement means that no knowledge of any kind is possible to man, i.e., that man is not conscious. Furthermore, if one tried to accept that catch phrase, one would find that its second part contradicts its first: if nobody can be certain of anything, then everybody can be certain of everything he pleases—since it cannot be refuted, and he can claim he is not certain he is certain (which is the purpose of that notion).


In normal terminology, certainty contradicts fallibilism. Certainty means thinking you can't be wrong. It means "known for sure" (dictionary).

Objectivists speak of contextual certainty but frequently speak of "certainty" without mentioning context. Why say things that sound like infallibilism, and will be taken as infallibilism by most listeners, if you don't mean it? Does Objectivism have mixed views about this? Why even use the term "contextual certainty" instead of one a term that sounds compatible wtih fallibilism? (My guess at the reason: to sound incompatible with skepticism.)

When Russel said people can't be certain, didn't he mean they can't have omniscient infallible knowledge? Which is true? So why is Rand arguing about this? If he's a skeptic, criticize that, but denying infallibility isn't skepticism. He said man can't have certainty, not that man can't have contextual certainty. Objectivism may mean "contextual certainty" whenever it says "certainty", but Russel does not.

And sometimes Objectivists do seem to mean infallibilism, for example Harry Binswanger wrote that, "Objectivism holds that perception is infallible and that all science is, ultimately, the unpacking of what's implicit in perception." (Source: email.) The context was attacking Karl Popper (a fallibilist philosopher, but not a skeptic). But eyes are capable of error, hence glasses. And another reputable Objectivist told me Binswanger is mistaken because the issue of fallibility doesn't even apply to percepts, only to concepts.

Philosophy of Objectivism

In lecture 12, Q&A, Ayn Rand says her husband could "infallibly" know what music or art she'd like (but please no one else send her stuff, they get it wrong so much). Is this her serious position? How is it compatible with Objectivism? Was it careless? Epistemology is important, and fallibilism is important (I think, and Objectivism says), so why wouldn't Objectivists be more careful not to make infallibilist sounding statements in general?

When I talk to amateur Objectivists, I often run into lots of infallibilism. Are they wrong and misunderstand Objectivism, or is there more to it?

Please clarify the Objectivist position on fallibility and certainty.

asked Nov 29 '14 at 21:46

Curi's gravatar image


edited Nov 30 '14 at 12:24

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦

"Fallibilism" apparently has become a technical term in academic philosophy, although it isn't listed in my 1992 dictionary of philosophy. There is a substantial article about "fallibilism" on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article begins:

Fallibilism (from Medieval Latin fallibilis, "liable to err") is the philosophical principle that human beings could be wrong about their beliefs, expectations, or their understanding of the world, and yet still be justified in holding their incorrect beliefs.


In the most commonly used sense of the term, fallibilism consists of being open to new evidence that would contradict some previously held position or belief,[citation needed] 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."[1] This position is taken for granted in the natural sciences.[2]

The formulation of the question correctly identifies the Objectivist position that certainty is contextual. Man can be certain within the context of observations and prior knowledge from which he formulated the new identification of which he is contextually certain. There is, however, an additional step on the path to achieving contextual certainty: since man is fallible (capable of error in conceptualization and his usage of concepts), he needs to follow a specific method in order to reach contextual certainty. OPAR discusses this in depth in Chapter 4, "Objectivity," subsection titled, "Objectivity as Volitional Adherence to Reality by the Method of Logic." The discovery that past conclusions don't apply to present circumstances may mean that the context is different, or it might also mean that one's methodology was flawed, i.e., incorrectly followed. The whole point of epistemology is to give man as much certainty and guidance as humanly possible in his method of cognition -- and we know that it works when applied properly. Reason is capable of giving man knowledge of reality.

If some Objectivists tend to speak of certainty without explicitly mentioning context, it's most likely because the dependence of all knowledge on context is supposed to be well known and well understood. The Objectivist position is fully clear. If one has any doubts, one can consult the Objectivist references, such as OPAR and key excerpts in The Ayn Rand Lexicon. Many amateur Objectivists may also not be sufficiently familiar with academic philosophy to regard formal "fallibilism" as an important issue that must constantly be emphasized and differentiated from Objectivism. As far as I have been able to determine, "fallibilism" isn't a very pervasive concept in philosophy anyway, although it may have become more so in more recent years. There is, of course, plenty of philosophical history behind the issues of fallibility, free will, context, and certainty in the writings of past philosophers, such as Hume and Kant. And dogmatic insistence on an absolute certainty independent of context and cognitive methodology tends to be associated with rationalism and religion (and opposed in erroneous ways by empiricism). Objectivism doesn't fit cleanly into either the tradition of rationalism or the tradition of empiricism. There is a very brief but highly informative excerpt on "Rationalism vs. Empiricism" in the Lexicon.

The question observes:

In lecture 12, Q&A, Ayn Rand says her husband could "infallibly" know what music or art she'd like (but please no one else send her stuff, they get it wrong so much). Is this her serious position?

It is an extemporaneous oral formulation that Ayn Rand surely would have edited further (to avoid confusion and misunderstanding) before publishing it in writing. She certainly was serious, however, in her admonition to her fans. She meant it when she advised them not to try to send gifts to her. Her words also explain that she had actual experience with gifts from fans: "they get it wrong so much." Her husband could know with certainty what she likes or doesn't like because he possessed the necessary context and had validly drawn the proper conclusions from it. (And she possessed the context to know what his conclusions about gifts to her were.)

... eyes are capable of error, hence glasses.

This formulation seems to use the term "error" equivocally. In regard to vision, "error" means "refractive error," such as blurred vision (compared to the 20/20 norm). That type of error doesn't apply to conceptual cognition because conceptual cognition isn't automatic; one cannot simply "open one's mind" and allow conceptual knowledge to "flow in" by itself from reality. At most, one can volitionally relax enough to allow material from one's subconscious to flow into conscious awareness, but that isn't the essence of conceptual cognition of reality. "Error" in conceptual cognition refers to disparities between one's conceptual conclusions and facts of reality, conclusions which depend on following a valid cognitive methodology within the given applicable context.

As for the views of Harry Binswanger, he himself has stated in print that there is at least one very rare occasion on which he differs with Ayn Rand. It is in regard to "sensationalism." Refer to footnote 22 on p. 64 in his book, How We Know. (My own understanding of Ayn Rand's position here is somewhat different from Dr. Binswanger's understanding, and I am puzzled by his interpretation of her views.)

answered Dec 04 '14 at 01:41

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

I wonder why you say, " Her husband could know with certainty what she likes" instead of "Her husband could know what she likes"? What does the comment about certainty add compared to (merely?) knowing? Well, I've created a new question about certainty to follow up.

(Dec 04 '14 at 02:51) Curi Curi's gravatar image

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Asked: Nov 29 '14 at 21:46

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Last updated: Dec 04 '14 at 02:51