Intellectual Humility

Earth from Space

Take a look at the comments section on a controversial youtube video at the intersection of science, philosophy, and faith of any kind, and…  In fact, I can’t in good conscience recommend that you actually take a look at one of those comment sections because quite honestly, they tend to be filled with vulgar, immature and profane filth.  On the occasion that I do decide to take a look at the comments, I normally learn nothing and regret being exposed to such distasteful and negative content.

We are all, as human beings, on this strange and wonderful journey through life together.  Since when did disagreeing, even about extremely serious issues, become grounds for hatred and attacks on each other’s intellects and characters?  What if we all just sat down together and reasoned through things peacefully?

I’m speaking to believers and atheists, creationists and evolutionists, liberals and conservatives, everyone equally here.  Could it be that you become so outrageously defensive about your position because you are either personally insecure, or secretly uncertain about your position?  If not, maybe you are overly defensive because you’ve subscribed to false notions about the nature of those who disagree with you.

And if your opponents are indeed vile, wicked human beings, let me ask another question.  How should someone such as yourself, with your personal wisdom and knowledge of the truth, feel about someone so depraved?  Enraged?  When Jesus looked down from the cross on his executioners, He felt pity.  He prayed that God would forgive them in their ignorance.  What a beautiful sentiment.

I’d like to claim that with great knowledge comes great humility.  Here are some reasons why.

1) Objective proof is a myth.

Theory of mind is the ability to realize that you, and others, have unique autonomous minds.  Why is it called the theory of mind, because honestly there is no way to verify its truthfulness.  I know that I have a mind, “I think, therefore I am,” but I can only assume that anyone else does.

I also don’t know that my memories are things that actually happened.

So even in a world where “reason” and “faith” are often portrayed as opposites, reason itself rests on many faiths that we take for granted.  That’s humbling.

2) Phenomenology.

In psychology, phenomenology is the study of how our perceptions may differ from reality.  In cases such as schizophrenia, the concept is obvious.  But research, and reflection on personal experiences with yourself and others, reveals that your mind is interpreting sensory inputs and ideas in its own biased way.

If you can’t admit that you have bias, you’re living in a dream world.  If you don’t realize the need to think as objectively and humbly as possible when discussing issues with those of different views, you are probably talking past them.

Which brings me to the third and final reason for humility.

3) Circumstances.  

Think about the circumstances that brought you to the beliefs that you hold today.  Somewhere somehow you learned what you believe to be true.  Just like the supporters of slavery in early American history.  Just like Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists all over the world.

And if what you happened to learn from who you happened to learn it happens to be true within this vast sea of wrong ideas that covers the earth, I can’t think of a more humbling experience.  You are lucky.

And also in that case, I’m guessing you’re able to sit down and have a civil, thoughtful, insightful discussion on the subject.  After all, you’re the expert.