Fallibalism: Every belief is a bet but some bets are better than others

The other day I had a very interesting conversation with a truly engaged and engaging Christian. We were talking about the Bible. He’s a literalist. He believes that the Bible’s meaning is clear and certain, and that it’s only when other people engage in an act he calls “interpreting” that things get muddled. I asked whether the Bible provides complete, comprehensive, and consistent instructions on how to live your life.

He thought for a while (an admirable trait of his) and said, “No, but it does give you complete instructions for salvation.”

Since salvation is the object of the game of life for Christians, that to me seemed tantamount to complete instructions for the game of life. I said, “You know, most of us have hunches about what happens after death, or at least we intuit that some scenarios are more likely than others. What’s your confidence level with regard to the Bible’s description of salvation and how to get to it? I mean, are you 50 percent sure? Seventy-five percent? One hundred percent?

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“Wow,” he said, “that’s a very good question. We were at a little morning coffee klatch, with people all around us. He was sitting, I was standing. We both had refreshments. “Take your time,” I said. I love this guy. I don’t remember a time when I ever saw a fundamentalist Christian think as long.

After a while he said, “I’m ashamed to admit it, I’m 98 percent sure. I should be 100 percent but honestly I’m not.”

One hundred percent sure you’re right–to him and to his church that’s a virtue. That’s a fundamental distinction between us. I’m sure I come off sometimes as though I’m 100 percent certain, but I would never claim I was. I consider it a vice, not a virtue.

Nor do I think of interpretation as something to switch on or off, as though others merely interpret words whose meaning I see clearly. Words are too promiscuous for certainty; their meanings morph willy-nilly in the eyes and ears of every beholder. I especially cannot apply the idea of fixed meaning to the words of a text so fantastical and miracle-drenched as the Bible, and especially not to text translated from other writings thousands of years old.

Not that the advantages of 100 percent certainty aren’t real and appealing. Most of us can see why it would be fun to be that certain, but that’s not giving certainty’s advantages their full due. It’s more than fun; it’s practical. One hundred percent certainty–the sense that others are (mis)interpreting and you’re seeing clearly–enables you to unleash your full unconstrained effort, determination, and focus. No longer wondering whether your ends are good, you can concentrate exclusively on finding and exploiting the most efficient means to achieve them.

Confidence levels are directly correlated to leverage. The more you believe in your cause, the greater the difference you can make. The great leaders of history–heroes and villains alike–had very high confidence levels. The main difference between heroes and villains is their choice of cause, not their confidence level. We are grateful to those who believed confidently in something that turned out well, and resentful of those who believed confidently in something that turned out badly.

I’ve written a lot about the insurmountably unknowable future (Zipslide Errors, Turing’s Blurring Anxiety, NPCs). For instance, I can think of a number that would mean a lot to me, just two digits–the year that I died. Someday that number will be obvious; today it’s unknowable by any means short of killing me.

Philosophers who recognize the insurmountable unknowability of the future are called fallibalists. They recognize that with uncertainty inescapable, all we can do is guess, placing bets that could fail. Fallibalists never get to 100 percent certain. They thus avoid all the nonsense about how to know something absolutely and also all the nonsense about how (since you can never know anything for sure) any bet is as good as any other. No, they believe that odds-improving methods exist, and that all of us intuitively seek such methods. You could say the fallibalist’s motto is “You never can tell, but you’ll die trying.”

I’m an avid fallibalist. I’m so avid I’m 100 percent sure that one should never be 100 percent sure (though I’m not 100 percent sure I’m 100 percent sure that one should never be 100 percent sure).

I believe it’s bets all the way down, but that doesn’t keep me from putting a lot of attention into better betting.

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