February 13th, 2016
CRITICAL rationalism can be characterized as the position that one should treat all of one’s beliefs as potentially revisable. In essence, critical rationalism is what philosophers would call an “epistemological attitude”, i.e., an attitude towards our beliefs. This radical approach towards everything that one takes to be true is philosophically difficult to defend to say the least. For starters, critical rationalism has a bit of a circularity problem, as it recommends taking every belief as potentially falsifiable except the very belief in critical rationalism. Additionally, why should we regard our beliefs as potentially false when we have strong indication that what we take for true here and now is actually true? Many have tried to tackle these challenges philosophically but as usual in philosophical debates, the jury is still out. My goal in this post is different: I want to advance a pragmatic defense of critical rationalism, that is, I want to show why it is an attitude towards beliefs that suits our current existential conditions and allows us to better cope with our present reality.
To go straight to the point, my argument is that critical rationalism is the only epistemological attitude that allows us to truly meet the greatest challenge of our age: the rise of fundamentalism. In a world completely interwoven by digital technologies but in which a wide range of diverging worldviews overlap, I see no other alternative to fundamentalism than to embrace critical rationalism. Let me put it the other way around: if we do not adopt a critical rationalist attitude towards our beliefs in an interlinked and plural world like ours, we will inevitably fall prey of fundamentalism. Any attempt at fixing our beliefs in an un-revisable manner is inexorably an exercise of conceptual violence in a plural and interconnected era like ours. In spite of the genuinely good intentions we might have when we throw ourselves in the quest for truth, if we convince ourselves that we have found it and that the search is now over, we cannot help but relapse into fundamentalism.
In practical terms, adopting a critical rationalist approach to one’s beliefs has two profound consequences: it redefines our very idea of rationality and it shakes the core of political liberalism’s presuppositions. Let me begin by exploring the former. In a world in which we consider all of our beliefs to be potentially revisable the emphasis of rational argumentation moves from the actual content of our beliefs and how they grasp what the world really is into the way in which we hold our beliefs. How we believe becomes more important than what we believe in. Sound epistemological practices, degree of openness of the conversation and intersubjective processes to validate (and falsify) beliefs become more central to our idea of rationality than the actual truthfulness of our beliefs. Truth remains the central goal, but keeping the road open as we search for it is essential. For us critical rationalists truth is an aspiration, and it should always be so.
But perhaps the most profound consequence that adopting a critical rationalist position has in a world like ours is that it pushes into obsolescence liberalism’s dictum of keeping our worldviews private and depoliticized as the state remains neutral among conflicting versions of the good. The great privatization of beliefs that started since the early days of liberalism was prompted by our fundamental reluctance to consider our own worldviews as potentially revisable. Keeping out of the political what one is unable to discuss was and continues to be liberalism’s stroke of genius. But as I have argued in other posts, the rise of the internet and instant global communication tools is dragging our private beliefs back into the social. Faced with this new reality we have but two options: coping with a growing and hazardous fundamentalism as formerly private beliefs find themselves face to face in the new digital global village, or adopting a softer stance towards our own beliefs as endorsed by critical rationalism. As I see it, only the second option offers a truly sustainable way to dismantle fundamentalism and while at it pushes forward the long march of freedom as we emancipate ourselves from the tyranny of our own fundamental beliefs.