Tags: fallibilism


Humility and Infallibility

Many Bahá’ís proclaim to be humble, truth-seeking people. Indeed, the prophet Bahá’u’lláh tells us repeatedly of the evils that result from attachment to one’s ego. But can someone who is humble legitimately claim to know who is infallible? Through careful thinking, I hope to reveal that faith in Bahá’u’lláh’s infallibility is fundamentally incompatible with humility. If I am right, then belief in his infallibility is not only similar to attachment to one’s ego; it is nothing more than a logical consequence of an over-confidence in one’s own perception. Such an over-confidence can only result in thinking very highly of oneself, which is the attachment to one’s ego that Bahá’u’lláh said we should avoid. This is why:

What does it mean for one to think himself fallible? It means that he is willing to admit that he or she could be wrong about his beliefs.

What does it mean for one to believe that another is infallible? It means that he or she believes that the other (the authority) cannot be wrong about their beliefs.

Is it possible to think oneself fallible while thinking another infallible? No.

Why not? Because if you are admit you are fallible, then you are willing to entertain the possibility that those who you trust could also be wrong, since you admit that your own trust in them could be faulty. But your belief that another person is infallible requires that you believe that the authority who you trust cannot be wrong (this is just another way of stating what belief in someone’s infallibility means). So, to think that Bahá’u’lláh (or anyone else) is infallible means that you are not willing to admit that he could be wrong, which means that you’re not willing to admit that your trust in him could be mistaken. Thus, to think another person infallible is incompatible with thinking oneself to be fallible.

Consider the same argument in premise form (see if you find any points you disagree with):

  1. If you believe that Bahá’u’lláh was infallible, then you believe that it’s not possible that what Bahá’u’lláh said could be wrong.
  2. However, if you are fallible, then it’s possible that your belief that Bahá’u’lláh was infallible could be wrong. In which case (i.e., if your belief was wrong), then Bahá’u’lláh was fallible all along.
  3. So if you’re fallible, then you admit that it’s possible that Bahá’u’lláh was fallible all along.
  4. But this contradicts believing him to be infallible, since that belief requires thinking that it is not possible for Bahá’u’lláh to have been wrong. Therefore, you cannot be both fallible and believe Bahá’u’lláh to be infallible at the same time.

In response to this, you may want to think that Bahá’u’lláh could have been wrong, but it just turns out that he wasn’t wrong (as a matter of fact, not necessity); and that’s what you mean by his being “infallible.” But it’s clear that that is not what we mean when we speak about infallibility, since such a standard for infallibility would allow for anyone who merely never said anything false to be counted as infallible. So by that standard of infallibility, a man whose only utterance was, “The sun is a star,” before he died would also be infallible.

Moreover, this is not the kind of infallibility that allows for faith in those words of Bahá'u'lláh whose wisdom you cannot yet grasp (such as why there cannot be women on the House of Justice). Why not? Because this standard of infallibility requires that you actively know that Bahá'u'lláh was right in everything he said. Thus, as long as there is anything you don't fully understand in the Writings, you cannot claim to believe that Bahá'u'lláh is infallible in this sense of the word. Besides, it's clear that this is not the kind of infallibility that Bahá'u'lláh means when he speaks of faith in his infallible wisdom.

But let’s go further. Perhaps you’ll want to argue that it’s the number of true statements that differentiates an infallible person from someone who just utters one true thing and then dies. But then if this is true, the person could have uttered a hundred-thousand trivially true statements (e.g., tautologies) and he would have been infallible.
Now perhaps you’ll want to argue that it’s not just the number, but the quality of the true statements (whether they tell us something new or surprising) uttered before he died that makes him infallible. If this is our standard of truth, then a man who uttered a hundred thousand platitudes and a hundred thousand metaphysical claims that cannot be verified would also count as infallible. Moreover, by examining history, we see that Bahá’u’lláh gave us little (if any) new knowledge or original insights, so he himself would not count as infallible by this standard!
So it is clear that infallibility requires the impossibility of being wrong (right as a matter of necessity) and not merely being right as a matter of fact. Thus, it seems to be true: belief in
Bahá’u’lláh’s infallibility is incompatible with admitting that you can be wrong.

Until further investigation, I consider this a conclusive argument against the compatibility of humility and religion (or at least any religion that requires faith in some infallible authority). Faith in another person’s infallibility is essentially a kind of egoism. It seems to me that only someone who has an inflated sense of his own perception of ‘the Truth’ could ever think himself so specially privileged to decide who is infallible and who is not. Such a faith is ultimately just faith in one’s own powers of comprehension, and as such, it is the opposite of humility and the opposite of virtue.

I have worded this strongly not because I think that Bahá’ís are not humble, but because I want to contrast Bahá’ís’ desire to maintain humility with their claims that they have faith that Bahá’u’lláh is infallible. This is not unlike a person who cares about their health and still chooses to smoke. They may not realize that their smoking contradicts their desire to be healthy. Likewise, if what I have written is correct and you are a Bahá’í, your desire is incompatible with your claim.