In common speech
- 1. It is something that can't be proved false.
- 2. It is something that can be safely relied on
- 3. It is something completely trustworthy and sure
When a person is called 'infallible', this can mean any of the following:
- 1. Some statements or teachings made by this person can be relied on to be certainly true
- 2. All statements or teachings made by this person can be relied on to be certainly true
- 3. All information believed by this person is true
- 4. This person is free from flaws or defects, especially of a moral nature
- 5. This person is always right. It seems everything they says becomes true
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.
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.
1. Cross, F.L. and Livingstone, E.A. (eds), "infallibility" in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p831. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997. ISBN 0-19-211655-X