On Fallibilism, Protestantism, and Woo: 25 Fundamentals

Lucy Keer at the blog drossbucket wrote a post called “20 Fundamentals,” inspired by John Nerst’s post “30 Fundamentals” at his own blog called Everything Studies. The idea of each is that the author would list some of the background assumptions, attitudes, or approaches on which their thinking was based. I read “20 Fundamentals” with interest; Keer seems to be part of a cluster of rationalist and rationalist-adjacent blogs which I sometimes find quite compelling. My experience reading “30 Fundamentals” was different; I more often find rationalist and rationalist-adjacent writing infuriating than compelling, and John Nerst’s fundamentals were very much a mix of the two.

Some carpentry tools on a sawdust-covered workbench, including a vice and a pencil.

“Old traditional carpenters tools retro vintage style,” by Kyon Cheng

What’s interesting about the fact that I found this post of his so frustrating in places is that my response mirrored the experience which caused him to write it in the first place:

It’s exasperating to read something were the author’s preoccupations and thought patterns are so unlike your own that you want to launch into a long counterargument every other sentence. The kind of background assumptions that float by unnoticed when you agree with them work very differently when you don’t. What happens when you read a text by someone with a very different underlying worldview is that things sound not so much simply false but some combination of nonsensical and outrageous. “Bullshit” captures the feeling rather than “false”.

That is a pretty good summary of how I frequently feel when reading the rationalists and rationalist-adjacent, well-articulated by the sort of person whose writing I sometimes feel that way about. Their writing bewilders me: there are things that are so obvious—so obvious!—which they fail to see, and the things they take to be self-evident aren’t at all, and moreover they often seem to draw not just the wrong conclusion, but the wrong kind of conclusion, from their chosen examples and test cases.

Nerst, a large part of whose project is to disagree better, goes on to write the following:

It was only later and with more experience that I could piece together how their writings made sense against a whole other background of beliefs and interests than my own. This background was never explicitly described to me. It had to be inferred, and I came away with the conviction that we should be far more explicit about the assumed background against which we intend to communicate.

It is in that spirit that he wrote 30 fundamentals which to a greater or lesser extent define that assumed background. He also writes, “I’d like to encourage other bloggers and writers to do this too. It’s a great tool, not just for others but for yourself too. Have one you can link to so people can sniff you out and get a feel.” I think that there is merit in this exercise, though I wouldn’t be as normative about it as he seems to be, so I’m going to try it.

I like what Keer says:

What I ended up producing was a bit of a odd mixed bag of disparate stuff. Some are something like factual beliefs, some of them are more like underlying emotional attitudes and dispositions to act in various ways. // I’m not trying to ‘hit bedrock’ in any sense, I realise that’s not a sensible goal. I’m just trying to fish out a few things that are fundamental enough to cause obvious differences in background with other people. […] I’ve mainly gone for assumptions where I tend to differ with the people I to hang around with online and in person, which skews heavily toward the physics/maths/programming crowd. This means there’s a pretty strong ‘narcissism of small differences’ effect going on here […].

I’m going to attempt much the same, though the people I tend to argue with online differ markedly from those I tend to spend time with in real life, and for that matter they tend to differ markedly from each other. I might therefore avoid a narcissism of small differences and veer toward another, far less useful vice: an isolating eclecticism, bogged by eccentricity. I will also lean toward revelations that are new to me.


1. All knowledge is dialectical. It took me forever to learn what “dialectical” means and one of the things I learned is that not everyone means the same thing when they say that such-and-such is dialectical, so I’ll explain: all knowledge has a relationship with and depends upon prior knowledge. You cannot learn anything without already having a framework of knowledge to support it. Furthermore, all theories, ideas, beliefs, and what have you exist as responses to preceding theories, ideas, beliefs, and what have you. It’s not just that all ideas have a history; it’s also the case that ideas only make imperfect sense without reference to that history. Take an idea out of its history and put it in another context and you have a different, though related, idea. [sources: my Library and Information Studies education; Alastair MacIntyre and Amod Lele; various writings on Judaism]

2. As with Keer, I am betwixt-and-between regarding contextualizing v. de-coupling; I am much more comfortable with contextualizing than most STEM people seem to be, and I’m much more prone to de-coupling than most humanities people are. I think (but I am not sure) that my practice is most often to switch between them rather than to prefer one over the other. I’m also sure on a gut level—but I think I can argue for this one—that decoupling is helpful for many discussions but contextualizing is necessary for all discussions. Contextualizing isn’t just about attending to people’s feelings about ideas; contextualizing is also about understanding the history with which the ideas in question have a dialectical relationship. You don’t fully understand the ideas if you’re decoupling. You don’t. Just to understand an idea, priority must be given to contextualizing. (However, I’m also very concerned about social consequences, so let’s not forget that much of the argument in favour of decoupling has been made to license discussions of “human biodiversity” and other fronts for scientific racism, so that they don’t have to reckon with their racist pedigree or with the costs such discussions have for PoC. There’s a context to the argument about decoupling vs. contextualizing! And that context involves non-trivial amounts of racism and Western cultural imperialism! Asking us to ignore that context when considering the merits of de-coupling is to beg the question.)

3. I assume on an intuitive level that a nominalist materialism is true; that doesn’t mean that I “believe” that it is true or that I intend to reason as though it is true. Although I think nominalism is true for phenomena perceptible to human beings, I don’t think it can be a complete explanation of reality. In an analogous but I think distinct way, I don’t believe materialism can be a complete account of reality—and even if it could be, I doubt it can be proven true. I’m placing my bets elsewhere.

4. Then again, I don’t think anything can be proven true. I’ve been a pretty thorough-going fallibilist since reading David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, though I disagree with Deutsch on almost everything else. (There’s a bit of a story to how I acquired that book). In essence, I don’t think knowledge is gained by proving things true; instead, knowledge is gained by giving something every opportunity to fail and finding it hasn’t so far. No knowledge, of any kind, is ever certain: it’s only the best knowledge we have so far. This is a feature of knowledge and not a feature of the objects of knowledge, though many objects of knowledge have their own ways of evading our comprehension.

5. In #4 I used the phrase “in essence,” so I guess I should state now that on an immediate gut level I feel that Platonism and all its kin are preposterous. I cannot overstate how foolish they seem to me: bewildering tripe, New Age mysticism for trads, less plausible than fairyland! And yet I also concede that this is only a feeling, an intuition, and that there are very good arguments for something like Platonism describing certain facets of reality, and on a regular basis I remind myself that I have even come to my own Platonist conclusions.

6. Having just insulted New Age philosophy, I should also say this: as much as I might hold a private disdain for anything that seems to me to be what some people call “woo,” I hold greater disdain those who express disdain for that which they call “woo.” I dislike the disdain I have for paranormalists and astrologers and Hollywood Buddhists and I am trying to iron it out of myself; I have no problem with the disdain I have for the anti-woo crowds.

7. Perhaps that last entry is a consequence of my very high score in Openness on the HEXACO and Big Five personality measures; at any rate, I think nearly everyone I argue with is too confident in their beliefs and far too ready to convince others of them. Carl Sagan’s skeptical open-mindedness seems correct to me, but I probably couldn’t support this in an argument. (Come to think of it, however, all this may have as much to do with being Canadian as it does with any HEXACO measure.)

8. Another thing I couldn’t support in an argument is my preference for high precision and accuracy in thought and discussion. I often feel that my interlocutors conflate, overreach, or overgeneralize. Where there are three possible readings of a text, folks insist on one; where there are three overlapping phenomenon, folks will see two distinct ones. This is at least as true of people on “my side” as of those who are not. Moreover, much of my own hesitation in bringing out a view for dissection comes from my sense that my thinking is loose somehow, not sufficiently razor-sharp. And yet it’s not just that I couldn’t support this preference in an argument; I also wouldn’t. I have read and understood the argument for imprecise statements that social justice activists often use—“Men do xyz,” for instance, where what is meant is “Most men, under such-and-such conditions, do xyz”—and I don’t see anything wrong with the argument. I wouldn’t try to dissuade anyone from using certain imprecise statements like that. But I still hate it, hate it, hate it; it looks sloppy to me.

9. I am Protestant. There is some debate whether Anglicanism, of which I am at the moment a member, is a Protestant denomination or if it is something else; whatever the truth in that debate, I am nonetheless in my heart a Protestant. I was baptized and confirmed Lutheran, yes, but a fallibilist Christianity is Protestantism, and that’s more what I mean. (I, uh, often shy away from public discussion of my own religious beliefs, but we’re talking about fundamentals and this is one of them.)

10. Meanwhile a dialectical Christianity is, in some circles, called Catholicism: you can’t do Christianity without engaging with its (intellectual) tradition. Long before I figured out what the word “dialectical” meant, I realized that a Christianity which does not acknowledge the role that tradition plays in all religion is, at best, dishonest; I also realized that most of Protestantism was guilty of this dishonesty. Anglicanism is not.

11. To say that I am Protestant in my heart, of course, isn’t just another way of saying that I’m a fallibilist; it’s also saying that I’m a Christian. Even if I lose all faith, I will never shake the cross, the tomb, the incarnate God, the trinity of love, the creator of covenants, the suffering lord, the hosts of angels many-wingéd and many-eyed and burning with terrible light; whether I believe it is all history, literal and true, or none of it is, Christianity will still be the great myth to me, the one in my bones and in my blood and in my breath, haunting and binding me. As much as I admire other religions, as much as I have learned about them and see their logic, this is the one that owns me mind body and soul.

12. Fred Clark has written something to the effect that a lukewarm faith is a curse not because God hates it, but because you lose all the pleasures of atheism and all the pleasures of orthodoxy at once, yet keep the miseries of both; I suspect that this will always be my curse.

13. I do not share the low Protestant suspicion of sophisticated pleasures that seems to waterlog the US, and Canada to a lesser extent. I’m fine with simple pleasures, but I don’t have a sense that they’re somehow more wholesome in themselves than fancy ones. The problem with decadence is not the decadence but rather the inequality and suffering that is often needed to produce it.

14. On the level of belief, I do not think that it is always better for us to know the truth, nor that we are always obliged to seek it; on the level of habit, of disposition, I am strongly oriented toward honesty and I seek truth restlessly, relentlessly, to my own detriment. This is a paradox that has long distressed me and likely will for a long time yet.

15. On a deep, fundamental level, I suspect the universe can supply on its own no meaning that we are obliged to care about—meaning, here, in the sense of relevance or importance or moral worth. Only by caring about things do we confer upon them meaning; meaning cannot give us reason to care. But if I can turn to a God who cares about something—cares to the point of death—then my own cares can be lifted up into God’s and they won’t vanish with me. Without God, I’d be left with no meaning but that which I can make myself and, while I fully acknowledge that other people may not need anything more than that, I do. If there is no God to care about things, I see no point to living. It is not absurdity that bothers me in itself—I am blasé about absurdity—but rather that I am overwhelmed by life and often I do not want any part of it, so if I am to bear living I need a reason to live beyond the ones that I make for myself. An absurd world can give me no such reason. God could. (The moral philosophy of the fictional religion Irreanism seems very nearly true to me, except that I would in some way relate mell with God incarnate in Christ.)

16. I cannot imagine any alternative to the following: our beliefs about the world will be shaped to some extent by our psychological needs, some of which will be more idiosyncratic than others and some of which will be more conscious than others. This will always be the case, and significantly so. We can endeavour to ensure that reason and evidence are also influences on our beliefs about the world, but it is mistaken to reject worldviews simply on the grounds that they meet psychological needs. Give any person enough time with a worldview and they will fit it to their own deep purposes.

17. As a follow-up to #16, it is sensible to spend at least as much time understanding what these psychological needs might be, and how worldviews might meet them, as you spend assessing them according to standards like “reason” and “evidence”—not to turn your unconscious into a Procrustean bed, mind you, on which you stretch or chop beliefs, but to know where you stand and where others might stand. And, well… probably this is not a thing I can argue well. I am just so sure that psychology and comparative religion are worthwhile activities, and that’s a sign that I probably don’t have a good argument for it.

18. There we go: I assume that anything I think is obvious is something for which I probably (~70%?) don’t have a good argument. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s false; it just means I haven’t thought about it enough to assess whether it’s true or false. It is my experience that other people should make this assumption about themselves as well. (When I shouted about things being so obvious—so obvious!—above, I was teasing myself with this in mind.)

19. I’ve discussed this before, but the specific intellectual construct I usually use to understand the psychological needs I mentioned in #16 is W Paul Jones’s theological worlds. In those terms, I am motivated by some hybrid of his World 3—my central anxiety will have something to do with personal insufficiency, where I feel like I ought to be more than I am, or more perfect than I am, but see no way of achieving that—and his World 5—my central anxiety will have something to do with how overwhelming life is, with its suffering and difficulties and relentless sorrow. I have a strong intellectual appreciation for World 2—its central anxiety has something to do with injustice, with history as a parade of cruelty and oppression—but it doesn’t drive me the same way.

20. I am a Hufflepuff: I value most of all compassion, mutual care, forgiveness, egalitarianism, humility, community, humour, and soft squishy things like that. Many people probably confuse me for a Ravenclaw; I am very similar to a Ravenclaw. But at the end of the line I will put kindness before truth, or at least I will try to. I’m not very good at it. (If you like, in the language of sortinghatchats I am a Huffleclaw: Hufflepuff Primary—I care about people more than principals, and all people at that—and a Ravenclaw Secondary—I do my best work when I can draw on the knowledge and theories I have collected, and I spend a lot of time collecting and testing knowledge and theories.)

21. I do not understand the concept of desert. When people say things like, “You deserve to be loved,” or, “People deserve to eat,” or, “Nazis deserve to be shot,” I don’t really understand what is being said. I don’t see how a feature of an ideal world, or a consequentialist consideration, or a moral obligation which you have, somehow becomes a property of some person. (For what it’s worth, I didn’t understand this concept back when I was a moral realist, either.) And while I am aware that “I have no idea what this even means” isn’t a disproof of something, I do read any statement with the word “deserve” in it as being nonsense at best.

22. I have little to no patience when people display what seems to me to be insufficient intellectual empathy and to make matters worse I have an extremely high bar for intellectual empathy. The good news is that I care more about effort than success where that is concerned. The bad news is that most of you aren’t putting in the effort I expect, either.

23. I am suspicious of any advocacy that does not acknowledge problems with the thing being advocated and of any criticism that does not acknowledge reasons to support the thing being criticized; of the two, I find advocacy-without-criticism far less appealing than criticism-without-advocacy, but neither is trustworthy in my eyes. If you are taking a position and you do not show me that you understand why other people who have had this position explained to them still do not take it, then I fundamentally do not trust that I can take your word for anything on this topic. Nothing damages a person’s credibility, in my perspective, so much as full-throated endorsement.

24. Of the prominent moral theories, virtue ethics logically seems most likely to rescue me from moral error theory (ie. what I describe in #15), but my intuition is consequentialist in almost all matters. There is one prominent exception.

25. I cannot shake the feeling that all violence is monstrous and indefensible. This is my one deontological instinct. No amount of suffering justifies preventative violence, or even a preventative threat of violence. If I take that to be true, I am committed to radical anarchism because there can be no laws nor states without violence. And yet the consequences of radical anarchism seem just as troubling. Without laws or states there can be no redistribution of wealth to support those who are disadvantaged compared to others. There would be no check on selfishness or rapaciousness or flat cruelty. Human butchery of the world will continue apace. I am caught between instincts on this matter, between violence and neglect. In practice, I accept state violence as a necessary evil, but I still think there is a desperate quixotic hopeless beauty in pacifism.


I could generate more entries if I tried responding more directly to Nerst’s or to Keer’s own fundamentals—like Nerst I think that free will is a confused concept and that it is fair to say that free will exists on certain levels of abstraction and not on others; unlike Nerst I have no particular sympathy with nerds or STEM people; like Keer, I think Bad Ideas From Dead Germans are better than Bad Ideas From Dead Positivists; unlike Keer, who starts with specific examples and works to theory, I prefer to shuttle between abstraction and specificity—but I think that’s stretching the dialectical element of this exercise too far. After all, the exercise is a response to Keer and Nerst, but my fundamentals really aren’t. I will stop here, at 25, the mean of 20 and 30; I suspect that in future I will think of others to round this out. Furthermore, I wonder if I will wind up changing my mind on some of these; I assume I will! Perhaps I will be dissuaded of a position I stake out, or perhaps I will come to see that I have been wrong about myself in some way. This process of writing fundamentals may be more exorcism than explication.

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One thought on “On Fallibilism, Protestantism, and Woo: 25 Fundamentals

  1. Pingback: Simple and Sophisticated Pleasures in the Capitol | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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