Neither infallible nor omniscient

In ITOE and elsewhere, AR makes a point whose significance is massive, but is not easily available:

Man is neither infallible nor omniscient; if he were, a discipline such as epistemology—the theory of knowledge—would not be necessary nor possible: his knowledge would be automatic, unquestionable and total.

It’s easy to see why fallibility—the possibility of error—gives rise to the need for standards. One needs a way of distinguishing correct from incorrect conclusions. But what is non-omniscience doing there?

Omniscience, after all, is just a dreamed-up attribute of a dreamed-up divinity. Why make a point of denying it?

Well, this week I gave my ITOE students (at ARU) the assignment to concretize “neither infallible nor omniscient” and two students, Tom Ho and Shea Levy, in their answers made a connection between non-omniscience and fallibility, a good connection that I had not suspected.

Let me put the point in my own terms, with my own context. Error is an idea in the mind that contradicts the facts of reality. If you knew every fact there was, you would, by that fact, exclude the possibility of error.

For instance, you wouldn’t make the error of thinking that all cats have tails, because you would know that Manx cats do not. So your omniscient knowledge would be: “All cats, except for the Manx breed, have tails.”

Could there be an unrealized contradiction in your omniscient knowledge? “Unrealized,” brother? That would be an unknown contradiction. But you know everything.

Could you know everything but also, on the side as it were, hold some additional false beliefs? Not if you knew everything, because then you’d know that those beliefs were false. And you can’t believe anything that you know is false. “It ain’t so, but I believe it” is a contradiction.

Well, what if you knew everything but failed to activate some of that knowledge? Just as we non-omniscient beings may know that having a big slice of chocolate cake a la mode with whipped cream is not good for us, but fail to make that knowledge as real as the knowledge that gustatory bliss is available? (A hypothetical example only, you understand.)

Yes, free will and the crow limitation mean that the mere possession of knowledge does not guarantee one activates that knowledge and holds to it in action.

That’s why the next sentences after the ones quoted are:

But such is not man’s nature. Man is a being of volitional consciousness: beyond the level of percepts—a level inadequate to the cognitive requirements of his survival—man has to acquire knowledge by his own effort, which he may exercise or not, and by a process of reason, which he may apply correctly or not. Nature gives him no automatic guarantee of his mental efficacy; he is capable of error, of evasion, of psychological distortion.

Now, that concerns volition in regard to the acquisition of new knowledge, but it applies also to free will in the activation of and holding onto any item of knowledge.

There is no fact-value dichotomy. Our possession of free will gives rise to the possibility of both factual error (including factual errors about what is valuable) and wrong behavior.

Without free will, whether we knew everything or not, our every thought and our every action would be as unjudgeable as the laws of physics.

This is not to say, absurdly, that every mistake one makes is due to irrationality; there are “errors of knowledge,” a phrase AR canonized as the opposite of “breaches of morality.” But notice that “errors of knowledge” arise only because man is not omniscient!

Free will, fallibility, and non-omniscience are bound together in these and other fascinating ways.

I’m glad that I gave the assignment to concretize “fallibility and non-omniscience.” And congratulations to Tom and Shea for seeing an important point that concretized non-omniscience.