The Two Principles of Honest Intellectual Conduct

The 20th century mathematician, logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell is reported to have said that he would never die for his beliefs because he might be wrong. In the code of intellectual conduct this is called The Fallibility Principle. It simply says that whenever we go about discussing and debating things, we have to bear in mind that we are fallible and our position and views may not be tenable always. There may come a point in any sort of discourse or confrontation when we have to give up our initial position in favor of the truth even if it comes from the adversary or even if it’s at loggerheads with our ego. In simpler words, it’s accepting that we may be wrong, full stop. Along with this principle, there’s The Principle of Truth-Seeking which states that the main aim of every discussion or exchange of ideas is to arrive at what is true or at least get closer thereto. Both these principles are equally important, work in tandem and for that matter complementary to each other. If we are to seek truth, we must first do away with whatever false we are holding. We must surrender and forsake our beliefs in case of their falsity for the sake of truth. As by abiding by these principles many a positive thing branches forth, I wish to see them through a wider perspective of our lives and apply them whenever and wherever they are fit to find their application. I will discuss how these principles can be used to secure a better and tolerant society and how they are utilized in Science, Philosophy, History and other departments of human knowledge for the accumulation of the same and for personal intellectual growth.

In employing these principles in our lives, both social and intellectual, we can create a seedbed where tolerance blooms and blossoms; a seedbed for ideas, intellectual growth and at the same time an amicable settlement of dissent. Most of the time we find it subliminally hard to be tolerant for others, their views and beliefs merely because of the fact that we are not ready to accept that we might be wrong in our own set of beliefs and views. We fail to hold to the fallibility principle and our ego gets in the way of our reaching to the truth. The famous physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said, ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.’  There can be no better way of fooling yourself than believing that you are immune to it by sticking to your own bigotry and dogmatism. Truth-is-me-come-what-may attitude mars intellectuality. It arrests the growth of epistemic development by making us self-opinionated and self-absorbed, too much obdurate not to listen to others. This is where Fallibility and Truth seeking come to our rescue and fit us out with tolerance which is one of the boons that issue from adopting these principles. When we are ready to accept that we are not the only ones owning the copyright on truth or what is right, we open the doors for the views of others to be entertained and adopted. Wiping every bias and prejudice off the slate of our mind and aiming for truth only that can come from anyone and any side, we readily find ourselves on the path of intellectual and social progress to which tolerance is one of the keys. We must always be ready to listen to and entertain the arguments of others as a means to finding out the truth.

Just as dissent is natural and disagreement desirable sometimes in our social lives, it’s more so in Science. Nowhere can we find a better instance of these principles than in Science itself. Science makes its way towards knowledge through fallibility. Certainty is unachievable everywhere. So is it in Science. The only thing we can be certain of is that we can never be certain of anything. Although it’s a truism that laws of nature do not change, we can’t be sure. The famous Scottish philosopher David Hume has illustrated this fact in connection with his infamous formulation of Problem of Induction. Even though it does, and has been rising from time immemorial, we can’t be sure that it will tomorrow. He was talking about the sun. Its rising (if it ‘rises’ at all in the first place) is uncertain and cannot be demonstrably established. According to Karl Popper, the 20th century philosopher of science, one of the essential ingredients of any scientific theory is its potential for being falsified. In fact, what distinguishes a scientific theory from non-scientific one is the former’s being capable of getting discarded in favor of the one that has the same potential but yet to be falsified. The highest status a scientific theory can get is that it’s not yet been disconfirmed. Accordingly we may never get to the absolute truth, as it’s evermore a step closer towards it through trial and error. This is the way through which the growth of human knowledge proceeds.

Similarly, in Philosophy whose essence lies in dialectics i.e. discussion and debate, fallibility is the first rule you should equip yourself with before entering as an interlocutor in any philosophical discourse whose age-old enterprise has been the search for the truth. The word ‘Philosophy’ literally means the love for wisdom. There can be no wisdom than knowing that you know nothing as was taught by the Athenian martyr Socrates. Who knows that the substance of the famous Delphic aphorism gnothi se auton (Know Thyself) was not ‘Know thy limits’? Aren’t we trapped in our Phanerons eternally, far from being able to perceive Ding an sichs.

Let me here once again invoke the words of Bertrand Russell. He says, ‘A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand.’ This pithy observation expresses a profound reality when it comes to so-called historical truths. Add to it the words of one of my friends that ‘an activist’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he consciously translates what he hears into something that serves his cause. The proof for the past has always been indirect. Past happenings can easily be molded in such a way as to set one’s own record right, which again is detrimental to intellectual evolution of an individual as well as society collectively.  In order to guard against this, the duo is all ready to pitch in with the one who wants to get away from biases of the past that have been incarcerating him. Once you accept that those whom you have put on a pedestal have not always been the ones picking up the ball of truth and running with it, you begin to see history of any people or event objectively.

The Principle of Fallibility and Principle of Truth-Seeking are the two lenses of the spectacles of objectivity and intellectuality that help the one who puts them on to develop scientific outlook and an honest overall personality.

Ubaidullah Pandit has studied Law and Information Technology