Pyrrhonism (AKA fallibilism) is not contentious

Fallibilism goes beyond the simple recognition that everyone is fallible. It demands that any ethical and equitable quest for truth (or beauty) must be founded on a commitment (not just willingness) to SEEK OUT (not just be open to) alternative viewpoints, which might contradict those of other people (friend or foe) and might even run counter to one’s own cherished beliefs (including a belief in fallibilism itself)!

Graham_Hierarchy_of_Disagreement

Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement

A fallibilistic comment is often curiously interpreted as being contentious, as if one person’s viewpoint could be discredited by stating possible alternative viewpoints.  A fallibilistic comment might seem to be a  “contradiction” in Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement, shown above, but it usually isn’t. A fallibilistic comment doesn’t actually refute the point — instead it points out the possibility that the point might be wrong. A fallibistic comment draws attention to EVIDENCE that is lacking to confirm or refute the point. Therefore, a fallibistic comment leaves the original point unresolved (pending accumulation of evidence, one way or the other).

Suppose, for example, that a young student says “Professor X likes to flunk out as many students as he can.”  In Graham’s hierarchy, a “contradiction” would be the unsubstantiated refutation: “No he doesn’t.”  A fallibilistic response, on the other hand, allows for both possibilities that Professor X might or might NOT actually be an a-hole who takes pleasure in student failure.  For the response to be fallibilistic, it must get everyone to consider the possibility that Professor X is a nice guy who experienced sadness — not evil giddy malice — at failing so many students. A fallibilistic response points out POSSIBLE contradictory interpretations of available data, thus making it clear that there isn’t enough information to decide if Professor X loves or hates flunking students.  A fallibilistic comment might be “Perhaps Professor X had no choice but to give low grades because that’s what the students deserved — and, if that was the case, isn’t it possible that doing it made him sad and frustrated rather than gleeful?” If successful, a fallibilistic comment will induce the student to go find more data to substantiate the original disparaging claim about Professor X. If unsuccessful, a fallibilistic comment might make the student stomp off with a hurtful and immature comment like “why won’t you just believe me?”

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