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James S. Spiegel on the Tension Between Conviction and Fallibility

The pursuit of knowledge is a tricky thing. On the one hand, when we discover truth — whether concerning an issue in science, history, theology, or any other subject matter — we should maintain a conviction about it, holding on to our belief with a certain amount of firmness. After all, knowledge is valuable and precious—sometimes even life-saving. In fact, when it comes to moral insight or what Scripture calls wisdom, a biblical proverb says we should be prepared to sacrifice all we own in order to attain it (Pr. 4:7). ¶ On the other hand, the pursuit of knowledge requires a teachable spirit and a willingness to recognize one’s intellectual fallibility on all sorts of issues. We all make mistakes in the intellectual realm, so it is possible that we have erred even regarding beliefs about which we feel most confident. Where we have the strongest convictions we might in fact be entirely ignorant! ¶ So how does one deal with this tension between the need for conviction and the fact of human fallibility? How do we avoid the vicious extremes of closed-minded dogmatism and total skepticism? The answer, it seems to me, lies in open-mindedness, which is generally regarded as a key intellectual virtue.


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