What is intellectual humility?

Having intellectual humility is important if you’re going to grow intellectually. It’s also, on a more practical note, a precursor for not being considered an arrogant fool. You have to be openminded and prepared to accept you may be wrong.

In examining an argument or claim a lot of us naturally approach it from a specialized angle or paradigm. Many of us have developed specialized knowledge or particular ways of thinking that we consciously and unconsciously apply across a variety of situations. But the world, reality, and life aren’t so specialized or simple. They’re emergent systems. The world is one big complex adaptive system. Understanding that complexity requires multiple perspectives across the knowledge spectrum. And so if we’re not careful our specialized knowledge can blind us to obvious errors and keep us from learning and growing. Abraham Maslow once said, “He is good with the hammer tends to see everything as a nail.” We all know people who see everything as a nail.

Which brings me to an excellent post at BigQuestions Online. Robert Roberts asks, What is it to be Intellectually Humble? It’s an excellent piece worth your attention.

Knowledge comes into us through a variety of channels that can be blocked by our concern for status, and the successful knowledge-seeker will be one who keeps those channels open. The process requires that we be able to “listen,” either literally or figuratively, to what others say. If what they say shows them to be superior to us in knowledge, we will be hampered in our learning if our first reaction is to try to show that we know as much as they or more. The process also requires that we be corrigible, that we be open to the possibility that our opinions are in some way misguided. If, whenever our status as knowers is threatened by the specter of correction, we feel that we must prove ourselves to have been in the right, we will have closed off an avenue of knowledge and crippled ourselves as inquirers. It can be particularly galling, if one lacks intellectual humility, to be corrected in a public forum; and the galling can obstruct the process of learning.

A lovely example of intellectual humility comes from Alice Ambrose in a report of experiences she had in the classroom of G. E. Moore, the prominent philosopher, at Cambridge University. She reports that in a series of lectures on the concept of truth Moore would sometimes criticize claims that he himself had made, say in an earlier lecture, with the same attitude one would take “to an anonymous philosopher whose mistakes called for correction.” Also, he would sometimes announce that he was going to skip to another stage in the argument because he did not know how to make the transition logically. Moore seemed to be unconcerned about protecting his status as an important professor at Cambridge because he was so deeply concerned with getting at the truth about truth. His love of knowledge swamped his concern for status, and this intellectual humility made him one of the greater philosophers of the 20th century.

Justice: What is the right thing to do?

Michael Sandel is a celebrity in the world of philosophy and education. He’s a Harvard University philosophy professor who’s world renown for his Justice lectures. He wrote a book to accompany the course and recently he published a book about the moral limits of markets.

The strapline to Sandel’s popular Justice lecture is “What is the right thing to do?” This is the question that’s constantly at the hub of Sandel’s lecture. Student’s are asked to decide what’s the right thing to do about a number of moral dilemmas that individuals and societies face. It’s challenging and intellectually stimulating as students grapple with tough moral problems and are forced to think through issues and ask deep questions about what they believe is the right thing to do.

If there is anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that tough, deliberative thinking is not what most people like to do. It’s work. You have to dig deep and be able to tolerate hovering in uncertainity. There are many tough questions. But not so many easy answers–if there are any answers at all. I realize some of us don’t have time or just don’t want to think about the big questions. It’s easier to just remain disengaged and avoid such tough questions. We risk actually be changed by what we learn. For some people that’s really what keeps them from engaging with ideas honestly and openly. Change isn’t what many of us want to accept. At the heart of philosophy is the willingness to challenge assumptions, especially long held ones. Philosophy requires us to use our own reason. It requires us to stand alone in the lights of our intellectual, emotional, and moral conscience.

Philosophy teaches us that a lot of what we think we know turns out under close scrutiny to be wrong. Or at least highly questionable. We attend lectures like Sandel’s because we want to face those tough questions and be changed by the force of our own understanding.

William James: “By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief…”

William James

William James

“This thoroughly ‘pragmatic’ view of religion has usually been taken as a matter of course by common men. They have interpolated divine miracles into the field of nature, they have built a heaven out beyond the grave. It is only transcendentalist metaphysicians who think that, without adding any concrete details to Nature, or subtracting any, but by simply calling it the expression of absolute spirit, you make it more divine just as it stands. I believe the pragmatic way of taking religion to be the deeper way. It gives it body as well as soul, it makes it claim, as everything real must claim, some characteristic realm of fact as its very own. What the more characteristically divine facts are, apart from the actual inflow of energy in the faith-state and the prayer-state, I know not. But the over-belief on which I am ready to make my personal venture is that they exist. The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is only one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those other worlds must contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also; and that although in the main their experiences and those of this world keep discrete, yet the two become continuous at certain points, and higher energies filter in. By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief, I seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude, and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor of which W. K. Clifford once wrote, whispering the word ‘bosh!’ Humbug is humbug, even though it bear the scientific name, and the total expression of human experience, as I view it objectively, invincibly urges me beyond the narrow ‘scientific’ bounds. Assuredly, the real world is of a different temperament — more intricately built than physical science allows. So my objective and my subjective conscience both hold me to the over-belief which I express. Who knows whether the faithfulness of individuals here below to their own poor over-beliefs may not actually help God in turn to be more effectively faithful to his own greater tasks?” — William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

Stay passionately curious all your life


The worst thing about stubbornness of mind, about prejudices, is that they arrest development; they shut off the mind from new stimuli. Open-mindedness means retention of the childlike attitude; closed-mindedness means premature intellectual old age. — John Dewey


What is the Good Life?

What are the common elements of the good life? In Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s new book, How Much is Enough: Money and the Good Life, they argue there are 7 basic elements that converge to make up the good life.

  1. Health
  2. Security
  3. Personality
  4. Friendship
  5. Leisure
  6. Harmony with Nature
  7. Respect

Part 2 of Interview.
Part 3 of Interview.

Is science the only “real” knowledge?

Philosophy & Science

Philosophy & Science

Does science always have the last word about reality? Is scientific knowledge the only “real” knowledge we have about life and the vast phenomenon? This is the question that Professor Austin L. Hughes takes up in a New Atlantis piece called The Folly of Scientism.

Scientism is the belief that the only real and reliable knowledge about the world is derived from science. Any knowledge derived from outside the realm of science, specifically philosophical knowledge or any other non-science, is mere opinion, belief, delusion, neurosis or whatever else but it’s not real knowledge. I’m being a bit facetious but you get my meaning. Now, being both a scientific guy, in the sense that I respect and admire the power of scientific inquiry and the facts gained from it, and also being a humanistic guy, believing that knowledge is more than mere physics, I can see both sides of this argument.

Science is impressive. Modernity is in large part about the rise of modern natural science. There is so much we understand now and can accurately predict about nature and the phenomenon because of the advances of modern natural science. Our lives have been improved beyond the imagination of those living within just that past 60 years. Science is an enormously powerful tool for reading the book of nature. We need to be careful and circumspect when challenging the results of scientific research. Believe me when I say that most of the time it’s a mistake (dangerous and irresponsible at times) to discount the validity of scientific explanations. If we’re not careful we fall into delusionism.

And yet to believe that science is the only domain of real knowledge is simply mistaken. Let’s start with the statement that all real knowledge is, indeed, physics (science). Well, there is no scientific, falsifiable way to prove the validity of this statement. It is, ironically, a philosophical precept. You can’t run an experiment that proves the statement “that all knowledge is physics.” You have to, well, take it as true…philosophically.

Second, there is the big problem with ultimate or original causes. To explain: We can discover, detect, and explain physical laws and how they operate in the universe, but as we keep pulling back the layers and layers of the causal onion, we realize we can’t explain the meta-laws (the ultimate laws) of the universe. In simpler terms, our current science can’t tell us why there is a universe (galaxies, etc) in the first place. “Why,” as the philosophical challenge goes, “is there something instead of nothing?”

And then there is the problem of judgement and values. Science can provide us with facts and important data, but science can’t resolve questions of value. For example, science does not help us decide whether we will or will not allow stem-cell research. This argument is sometimes confused as a science versus religion debate. But it’s really not. This is a philosophical debate not a scientific one. Science provides context, but it can’t give us the knowledge we seek — about what’s the right thing to do. This is a decision of ethics, of philosophy.

And then, I believe, there’s the knowledge of human intentionality. Basically we all have the same range of emotions in greater or lesser degree. We feel love, hate, lust, rage and fear and so on. But how do we truly learn about these emotions? Certainly emotional intelligence is real knowledge. Science can tell us about the chemical makeup of these emotions and suggest how to handle, understand or cope with them. But how do we really gain emotional insight? Science just can’t give us this knowledge. We learn about these things through art, literature, religion, philosophy, history, experience and so on. You learn them, in the broadest sense, through the humanities. As Will Durant muses: “To observe processes and construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy.”

Lastly, there are the other Big Questions about life itself and the miracle of human consciousness, both of which are still mysteries beyond the reach of science. Science can give us a lot, but it can’t provide us with meaning or purpose or even “why” science itself is so important and worth our time and effort. These are all philosophical questions.

Let me conclude by letting Will Durant provide my favorite summary of the relationship between philosophy and science:

But is philosophy stagnant? Science seems always to advance, while philosophy seems always to lose ground. Yet this is only because philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science –problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death. As soon as a field of inquiry yields knowledge susceptible of exact formulation, it is called science.

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: It arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.

Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things or into their total and final significance. It is content to show their present actuality and operation. It narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are.

The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev’s poem: He is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact. He wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth. He combines things in interpretive synthesis. He tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart.

Science tell us how to heal and how to kill. It reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war. But only wisdom — desire coordinated in the light of all experience — can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy. And because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire. It is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from despair.