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Fallible Ideas Newsletter
Welcome to my first newsletter. I'll try to talk about philosophy in a clear, simple way. I'd rather be helpful than impress you with technical jargon.
Who Am I?
I've been a philosopher for 15 years, so I'll start with some background. How'd I get here?
These may look like popular science books, but they say more about philosophy than science. They discuss topics like how people learn ideas, how to get good ideas, how to spot and reject bad ideas, and how reason works. Philosophy of Ideas is the most important branch of philosophy. It goes by the fancy nameepistemology.
Since I loved The Fabric of Reality, I went to David's website. I found Taking Children Seriously. (Original archived site.) I wasn't especially interested in parenting at the time, but I enjoyed reading high quality ideas.
Why did David write about parenting? Philosophy of Ideas covers how people learn. That makes it central to the field of education (it's sadly neglected). And education is a major parenting activity.
David's philosophy is a refinement of Karl Popper's Critical Rationalism. Popper was an intellectual giant. He made major philosophical breakthroughs on issues which everyone had been stuck on since ancient Greece, over 2000 years ago. Popper is best known for solving the problem of induction. (Unfortunately, few philosophers have understood the solution yet.)
Taking Children Seriously had more than just essays. Dozens of people were actively having email discussions. People would ask and answer questions, discuss parenting scenarios, and talk about philosophical connections.
I started participating and found it fun. I like debating which ideas are true. I had tons of questions and learned quickly. People discussed a variety of topics because they wanted to apply rational thinking to every field. I found out about about capitalism, libertarianism and Ayn Rand. I'm from the San Francisco Bay Area and wasn't really familiar with right wing ideas before that! People also questioned marriage, monogamy, the socialsciences, animal rights, recycling,mental illness, and school.
David liked my questions and thinking. We started talking regularly. I lost every major argument for the first five years or so, which was wonderful. I changed my mind about tons of stuff. Some people don't like finding out they're mistaken or ignorant, but it's a great opportunity to get better ideas. I got thousands of hours of individual, personal help from David to learn philosophy.
Over time I became the most active writer in the Taking Children Seriouslycommunity, read the most philosophy books, and had the most discussions. I've put lots of (enjoyable) effort into figuring philosophy out.
I made a website, Fallible Ideas, where I posted a collection of essays covering reason, tradition, parenting and more. I also merged several topical discussion groups (including Taking Children Seriously) into one called Fallible Ideasbecause it's all related by the underlying philosophy. (Join here.)
Fallible Ideas builds on David's thinking, which builds on Popper's. I also found some improvements when studying other philosophers and created some new ideas myself.
I'll discuss more of my intellectual history in the next newsletter. What ideas did I learn? Why do I think they're true? For now I'll explain the name Fallible Ideas.
Fallibility is a philosophy word meaningcapable of failing. I know I could be mistaken about any of my ideas. All people are fallible. It's impossible to ever guarantee an idea is true.
Mistakes play a major role in my philosophy. Mistakes aren't just possible, they're commonplace. Even when people feel absolutely sure, mistakes are still common. Because we all make frequent mistakes, a major goal should be to look for our mistakes and fix some of them. The more of our mistakes we find and fix, the more we can improve. We'll never be perfect, but there are no limits on improvement either. (The possibility of infinite progress is one of the reasons David named his book The Beginning of Infinity.)
Tips to help with finding and fixing mistakes:
- Prioritize topics you care about.
- Write down ideas you want to think over.
- Make ideas super clear and try to simplify.
- Share your ideas in public and read critical comments.
- Understand and judge ideas yourself.
- Look for reasons you're wrong, not just reasons you're right.
- In every disagreement, at least one guy is mistaken. It could be you.
- Focus on being calm while analyzing mistakes.
- Tiny fixes matter. They add up.
- Have patience with different perspectives and cultures:
[S]omeone who is far in advance of most people about an important moral issue is likely not to be understood at first, and in the meantime, to be hated and vilified just as much as someone who is egregiously wrong. How could it be otherwise?
– David Deutsch
Dealing with mistakes is one of the fundamental issues in philosophy. How do you know what's a mistake and what's correct? It's hard. It even comes up in other fields, like computer science, under the name
I chose the name Fallible Ideas to emphasize the dealing-with-mistakes issue and to express humility. I don't want anyone to treat me like an authority or take my word for anything. Use your own judgement. I aim to write clear, simple explanations that help people understand things for themselves.
I wrote a new piece on rational parenting and its connections to philosophy. I put lots of time into it and am really happy with the result.
Justin and I made pro Trump videos. I try to use philosophy to judge political ideas.
I mentioned mental illness above. I consider it a harmful, irrational myth used to attack people who are different or unwanted. Interested? Start with this short manifesto by my friend Thomas Szasz. I've got an essay explaining my thinking which you can buy here. Szasz wrote over 30 books with details, such as The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Theory of Personal Conduct.
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