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Trying to Fly with One Wing, Part 14: The Fallibility Principle

Annaliese is our precocious and self-made two-year old granddaughter. I call her “Ellen MacArthur” after the petite but determined British Dame who, in her teens and 20s, raced 70-foot sail boats single-handedly across the stormy North Atlantic beating brawny men three times her age and experience. When Annaliese was one-year old, we took her and her family (her parents and older brothers) sailing for a week in the open waters of the Great Lakes and Canada’s North Channel. In the process, we braved gale force winds and storms.

Family Ties, our Islander Freeport 41′ ketch, is a sturdy and safe ocean-going vessel, but such weather always brings a heightened level of anxiety and tension to the captain (me) and crew (my wife, Pam) — especially with three young grandchildren aboard. Yet, during such weather, with the large boat seemingly at the mercy of high winds and waves and occasionally plowing the bow into an on-coming wave, was the only time “Ellen” was happy. I’m told she never learned to walk. In one week she went from sitting up to a full gallop.

Precocious and Stubborn

Annaliese considers herself already grownup and in full command of the universe. Although she’s spent her entire life in the United States, she has that distinct British spirit — stiff upper lip, adamantly independent, and stubborn omniscience. (Omniscience is an attribute of God that means “all-knowing.”)  Recently Annaliese has potty-trained herself. As soon as she poops in her diaper, she trots to the bathroom, pulls off the self-made mess, and casts the whole kit-and-kaboodle into the toilet, running stark naked, with a smelly and dirty fanny, but a big toothy grin, to the living room where mom is serving tea to her ladies’ Bible study. She takes after her grandfather.

Last week we were “watching” “Ellen” for the evening. You can let her brothers read and play by themselves for hours without worry. “Ellen” however, requires two adults, a tow-line, and a backup GPS locator. My wife, Pam, clever woman that she is, got “Ellen” involved cutting out cookie dough. “Ellen” felt so grown up — playing with messy stuff and sharp objects (the tin cookie cutters) in exotic shapes.

“Ellen” was happy — until I came along, scooped up some of the scraps from her cutting enterprise, flung them into my mouth and started to happily chew and savor the sugary cookie dough. “Ellen’s” face turned sour and became deeply concerned; and when I apparently swallowed the mass, her eyes bulged out at me like I was something indeed strange. She had no interest in the cookie dough as food; and when the cookies came out of the oven and we offered her one of the warm, succulent treats, she ran away and hid behind her mom and dad, who had just arrived to take her and her brothers home. What was her problem, we wondered?

As it turned out, “Ellen” was suffering from rejection of the first principle of a good argument: “The Fallibility Principle.”

The Fallibility Principle

This series of articles is about the role of reason in the discovery of truth. We arrive at truth through the application of faith and reason, which are like “two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (John Paul II, Fides Et Ratio). Truth does not come to us by faith alone, nor does it come by reason alone. To rely on one to the exclusion of the other, is to fly with one wing, mostly in circles, as we misapply the ordered principles of good argumentation, or we introduce fallacies into our thinking.

This chapter is about T. Edward Damer’s 1st Principle of the “Code of Conduct for Effective Rational Discussion” — The Fallibility Principle. This principle encourages us to begin all arguments with an awareness that we could be wrong. The Fallibility Principle means our position could be fallible.  Or, even if the conclusion of our argument is correct, the evidence we present to support our side of the discussion may be invalid or fallacious in some way. The Fallibility Principle reminds us that we are not omniscient (all knowing). We should, therefore, approach all discussions with an air of humility and not a self-made arrogance. Indeed, in terms of Christian virtues, The Fallibility Principle is closely related to humility. That is, a humble attitude opens the ears of our opponents and reduces obstructions in the hearts of our opponents to the evidence we present.

Sounds good doesn’t it? Now, if I could just do it.

When I miss the mark, however, it doesn’t take long before I’m cheered up by meeting a devout and vocal atheist. Yes, they cheer me up. Here’s why.

The “New” Atheism and The Fallibility Principle

I’ve recently had several discussions with proponents of what some are calling the “new” atheism, a psychological phenomenon deeply rooted in a rejection of The Fallibility Principle. There is nothing really new about these folks, except that the old atheists are dead. The new atheists still claim several things impossible to know.

First, their intellectual knowledge of the material world gives them the assurance that there is no God. This confidence comes off not unlike Annaliese’s omniscience about the cookie dough. They claim that all that is knowable exists in the naturalistic material world, or that what they do know is enough to support their claim. (It’s amazing, isn’t it, that their knowledge about the material world would impart so much knowledge about the metaphysical (non-material) world?)

Yet there is no proof that atheists or anyone who subscribes to materialism or naturalism knows or can know all there is to know. Ask them for material proof of their omniscient assertion. I hope you enjoy silence. Materialism or naturalism also does not tell us the purpose of matter or why there is something rather than nothing. The most meticulous examination of human tissue or a person’s bodily functions does not explain the love or hate that can exist as part of their existence. Reason and science, per se, fail the all-knowing atheist on these points. They have failed the fallibility principle for they claim to know what they can’t possibly explain.

Secondly, the “new” atheist claims omniscient knowledge about what makes religious faith, such as Christianity, tick. They claim that faith in God is a blind faith, or a faith that is without supporting physical evidence. Such a “blind faith” however is outside the experience of Christianity, and even Christians should ridicule such “faith” as superstitious and unworthy of adherence. True Christian faith is substantially based on evidence from the natural world, e.g.: (a) historical evidence of people, places and events and the historically reliable records of the same; (b) the physical evidence of miracles both past and present; (c) the physical evidence of changed lives when moral principles (revealed by supernatural revelation) are applied, and; (d) the benevolent and extraordinary structure, design and order of the universe. The atheists’ claim, therefore, about Christian faith fails The Fallibility Principle.

Expanding that last point brings us to the third “omniscient” problem with the “new” atheism, and that is the reasonableness of its omniscient claim that the “order” of the universe, which is the theist’s primary evidence of intelligence behind creation, is actually not ordered, organized, structured, and cooperative, but rather random, the product of chance and mindlessness.

The very claim that the universe is the product of mindlessness is mindless. Stringing a group of words and concepts together to form a sentence requires the use of a structured language and sophisticated intelligence above barks, purrs, and growls. Imagine if natural law adjusted the nature of our physical existence to correspond to our belief system — anyone whose thinking approached such a disordered conclusion would himself correspondingly change into what he believed. Thus, if you believed the universe was not ordered, but randomly put together, would you morph into a quickly dissipating vapor? Could be interesting. But even such a law would have order to it.

Joking around like that actually substantiates the preponderance of evidence of an ordered universe. Trying to envision a disordered universe requires an ordered thought pattern — and a law to govern the disorder. Naturally occurring turbulence is a great example. We see turbulence in whirlpools, tornadoes, wave action, and jet streams. Although the movement of particles in a turbulent flow is so complex that man does not have the computer power to predict the precise outcome, we can coarsely compute its effect. There is an order to turbulence; it’s just beyond our ability to reduce it to a predictive formula. Science has given this observable order that is beyond our precisely predictive capability a quaint and ironic name — Chaos Theory or Fractal Structures. But don’t be fooled. Chaos and fractals are anything but random chance. In fact, the name properly and elegantly bows its head to the grandness of God’s elaborate design and embraces The Fallibility Principle.

Atheism fails to provide any physical evidence that the universe is not the product of an intelligent, ordered, benevolent power. When an atheist asks you for evidence of God, hold up your very functional thumb and wax eloquent on how the atheist’s thumb nail profoundly demonstrates the physical evidence of a loving God. (That’s a good essay, by the way, for your home schoolers…at any grade level. I call it the “Thumbnail Proof of God.”) After you’ve lectured for an hour or so, ask them to provide evidence that the universe is without order, structure, and the product of chance. Is their evidence the complex and highly designed structure of their DNA? Boy, that should keep them busy for several lifetimes. Suggest they instead consider The Fallibility Principle and embrace some humility.

Perhaps the “holy grail” of science during the past 70 years has been the search of a single mathematical expression that shows the relationship between the four known forces that hold the universe together. Those four forces in order of strength are (1) strong nuclear, (2) electromagnetic, (3) weak nuclear, and (4) gravity.  That very quest makes a grand assumption about which “new” atheists seem blind. In their grasping to explain the universe without God, they embrace the very nature of God to explain it. That there is an order, and it can be known, but that in our finiteness, our smallness, our fallibility, we do not know, nor do we come close to understanding.

You might suggest to your atheist friends, that if they really want the omniscience they claim to have, they ought to become devout Christians. For as Christians, when we get to heaven, we will no longer see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now that’s exciting for any scientist, even Stephen Hawking who has spent most of his agnostic lifetime looking for the single formula that explains the relationship among the four forces.

Common Applications of The Fallibility Principe

There are many common applications of The Fallibility Principle. A child learns that her knowledge is naturally fallible when she discovers the correspondence between a parent’s verbal warning not to run, and her stubbornness to run anyway, with the subsequent trip, fall, pain, bruise and small cut. The lack of knowledge about the universe around us takes on greater consequence when we are warned not to dive into an unknown body of water (metaphor intended), or to avoid hanging around with peers who are habitually involved in immoral talk and deeds.

By extrapolation, it shouldn’t take much to understand how the rejection of The Fallibility Principle leads to arguments, divorce, many preventable diseases, suicide, bigotry, the use of drugs, murder, terrorism and war. A good exercise for students is to observe relationships around them and then write an essay about how an observed conflict often begins by rejection of this first principle of a rational, effective discussion.

It is written that Satan is the father of all lies. In the Garden of Eden, Satan’s task was to convince Eve, if only momentarily, to disregard The Fallibility Principle — “You will be like gods who know….” Throughout history that is the great lie — reject the idea that you don’t know, and pretend you do. 

Antidote and Preventions

In the physical realm, when we ignore The Fallibility Principle and jump off cliffs because we think we can fly, or run red lights because we think we’re invincible, or eat too much sugar, or exercise too little — there are doctors, medics, nutritionist and nurses who assist us back to physical health.

Likewise, in the spiritual realm, when we ignore The Fallibility Principle and participate in mental gymnastics and sin through our wrongful intentions, we can go to friends, counselors, shrinks and most importantly to Jesus and His priests to seek forgiveness and make penance and restitution.

Acceptance of The Fallibility Principle is one reason we go to school and get an education. We live more comfortably when we understand reality and live within its confines. The more we understand about nature and the supernatural, we are better able to navigate past obstacles and get to where we have been called. When we disregard the importance of education, or learning about things we know little about, we embrace ignorance and the natural consequences of rejecting The Fallibility Principle.

The best education, of course, is experience. A baby often learns that things are safe or dangerous by coming into contact with them. We wondered what Annaliese had experienced to convince her that cookie dough and the baked results were an anathema. The answer was PlaydoughTM — earlier in her life she discovered that the salty substance was not that savory, and that Grandpa had to be nuts to be enjoying it. What she didn’t know was that the substance of real cookie dough was considerably different than the stuff used for play.

Annaliese’s stubbornness reminds me about the interpretation of truth. Her interpretation of truth was not true. She was sincere and passionate, but sincerity and passion have never been good criteria for evaluating truth. She was convinced that the yummy sugar cookie dough was Playdough. That is similar to the confusion I experienced as a Protestant about certain aspects of Catholicism. To me, Catholicism tasted like Playdough, and whoever enjoyed it, or swallowed it’s “lies” was strange indeed. As a Protestant I had rejected The Fallibility Principle. I might acknowledge its value, but in practice, with regard to my religious faith, I was omniscient. I knew that the substance of Catholic communion was really just bread and wine. Never mind that if I had lived during Jesus’ time and met Him, all of my sensory experiences with Jesus would not have revealed His divinity. While Jesus’ physical body was human, His substance was divine. Of course, examining Jesus’ physical presence would never have revealed His purpose for being here. Only supernatural revelation and faith would have done that, just as only supernatural faith reveals the true substance of The Eucharist.

Does Not Apply

There is, however, one place where The Fallibility Principle does not apply: when Jesus told Peter that upon him he would establish his Church, and “the gates of hell will not prevail against it…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:18-19); and the Holy Spirit would lead them into all (not some) truth (John 16:12).

That means, in terms of faith and morals, that The Fallibility Principle, if we are to believe Jesus, does not apply to the Church. Not because the Church, per se, is so omniscient, but because the Holy Spirit, who inspired fallible human authors to pen the infallible Scriptures, likewise was promised by Christ to inspire the Church to infallibly interpret the Scriptures.

Good Cookies

Annaliese came to learn that the substance of cookie dough was very different from what she had first supposed. A week later, when the cookies came out of the oven, there was no holding her back from gobbling them up. May we all embrace The Fallibility Principle, humble ourselves, learn from our teachers, and gobble up truth.


Stanley D. Williams, Ph.D. is executive producer for SWC Films, an independent film and television production company. He is the author of the motion picture screenplay writing guide, The Moral Premise: Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success, as well as owner of media distributor Nineveh's Crossing. He can be reached at sdw@StanWilliams.com.