Infallibility, from Latin origin ('in', not + 'fallere', to deceive), is a term with a variety of meanings related to knowing truth with certainty.
In common speech
When a statement, teaching, or book is called 'infallible', this can mean any of the following:
- It is something that is certainly true
- It is something that can be safely relied on
When a person is called 'infallible', this can mean any of the following:
- Some statements or teachings made by this person can be relied on to be certainly true
- All statements or teachings made by this person can be relied on to be certainly true
- All information believed by this person is true
- This person is free from flaws or defects, especially of a moral nature
These definitions differ widely. In common speech, 'infallibility' can refer to a person (or a group of persons), to an act of teaching by these persons, or to the information being taught.
Furthermore, infallibility can refer to the 'absence of error' or to the 'inability to err'. Although these are similar, they are philosophically distinct categories. For example, it is theoretically possible for a person to live their entire life without ever uttering a false sentence, even though they had the ability to err.
Infallibility is sometimes used to refer to someone's ability to 'learn' something with certainty. For example, a careful researcher might study a hundred books, each of which contains a few errors, and after carefully judging the statements in these books might deduce the complete, error-free truth. This is referred to as 'learning infallibly' or 'knowing infallibly'. However, this meaning is rarely used.
In psychology and sociology
Infallibility is inseparable from human nature as a result of the aspect of the human condition called self-awareness. It is one of the features that set us apart from animals, and as such, civilization cannot exist without it. In some cases, this may mean that a fact is to be accepted as true by all people; in others it may mean that an arbitrary decision must be made, and then not disputed.
Bank transactions are an example of this. If one cannot obtain certainty when counting out a withdrawal, then all transactions would become negotiated. "I think SIX twenties make a hundred. After all, you can't be certain it is only five, and the customer is always right."
Epistemology, a branch of philosophy, is concerned with the question of what, if anything, humans can know.
Some philosophical schools denying that people can know anything; others deny that people can know anything with certainty. For details, see existentialism and skepticism.
The German critical rationalist philosopher Hans Albert presented a logical argument that fallibilism is ubiquitous and inevitable, even in the fields of mathematics and logic. For details, see Münchhausen Trilemma.
Other philosophical schools agree that people can know things with certainty. See metaphysics, epistemology, reason and logic.
A standard work, "The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church", defines infallibility as 'Inability to err in teaching revealed truth'. Many Christians maintain that the Church
is infallible, but disagree as to where infallibility exists, whether in doctrines, scripture, or church authorities: see Infallibility of the Church
, Papal infallibility
, Biblical infallibility
and Biblical inerrancy
. Liberal Christians
deny that infallibility exists.
In Roman Catholic
theology, only the actual 'act of teaching' is properly called "infallible". For example, according to Roman Catholic dogma, Pope Pius IX
's teaching regarding the Immaculate Conception
was infallible; it is grammatically incorrect to say "the pope is [sometimes] infallible" or to say "the Immaculate Conception is infallible". Nonetheless, these phrases are frequently used in conversations or Catholic writings.
According to the First Vatican Council (1870-71) and as reaffirmed at Vatican II (1963-1965) the Pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals.
Infallibility does not refer to the inability to sin (impeccability), or to the personal holiness of a person, although it is occasionally misunderstood in that sense.
The notion of infallibility in Judaism as it relates to the Tannaim
of the Talmud
, as well as the Rishonim
and modern day Gedolim
is one surrounded by great debate. There are two schools of thought and each have proper intentions in their criticism of the other.
The view that Jewish sages are indeed infallible has its foundation is the desire to protect against the unraveling of support for both the religious doctrine and philosophical theory advances by the great sages of Judaism. If one can say "the great sage Rabbi X is wrong when he asserted that Y = Z," there is nothing to stop one from saying that the same Rabbi X might be wrong when it relates to other things as well, and we can therefore no longer accept Rabbi X as an authority on anything. Soon enough, no one would be eligible to make any forceful assertions, because the entire fabric of rabbinic authority will have been undermined.
The view that Jewish sages, both past and present, are not infallible is an approach to Judaism that attempts to dispel deification. Those who concur with this approach see infallibility as a purely Christian concept that defies rationalism and practicality. Man is inherently imperfect and thus his thought process is imperfect. It is not so much that this school of thought intends to propose this view as much as it intends to argue the opposing view -- there is no source in classical Torah
literature to support the stance that rabbis, whether great or small, are or were infallible.
An example of support of fallibility can be found in the Talmud, Pesachim 94b:
- The sages of Israel say: "The sphere (Earth) remains fixed and the constellations revolve," while the sages of the nations say: "The sphere revolves and the constellations remain fixed."...the sages of Israel say: "during the day the sun moves below the canopy (sky) and at night above the canopy," while the sages of the nations say: "during the day the sun moves below the canopy and at night below the ground." Rebbi said: "Their words seem more correct then ours..."
The words of the Mishna are commented on by numerous commentators, and evidence mounts that the Geonim and the Rambam perceived that the sages of the Talmud "erred in a matter of astronomy. The Rambam, himself, wrote that the great sages are not expected to advocate positions perfectly in-line with modern science because they were "scholars of that generation." often basing their assessments of what "they learned from the scholars of the era.
theology, the widely held belief is that the prophets of Allah
were infallible in the sense that all statements or teachings made by them can be relied on to be certainly true and all information believed by them is also true. Islam also teaches that the Qur'an
is an infallible text, one that is certainly true and is something that can be safely relied on.
Additional Shi'a teachings
theology, the belief is that the Ahl al-Bayt
, including Muhammad
, his daughter Fatima Zahra
and Shi'a Imams
are all infallible, but able to make mistakes. It is believed that they are infallible in the sense that all statements or teachings made by them can be relied on to be certainly true, that all information believed by themselves is true, and
that they have complete knowledge about right and wrong and never intend to disobey God , in a sense, perfect creation
. It is also held by Shi'as that there were 124,000 Prophets, beginning with Adam
and ending with Muhammad
- with all, including the latter, being infallible in the same sense as the Ahl al-Bayt.