I’m happy to have a chance to do a guest stint here at Times and Seasons, and over the next two weeks I want to use my borrowed soap box to talk about epistemic humility.
Epistemic humility is an awareness of the limits of our ability to know. It is an admission that we are ignorant of things that are true and that we accept as true things which are not. Hence the title, which comes from a longer saying of Akhenaten: “The wise man doubts often, and changes his mind; the fool is obstinate, and doubts not; he knows all things but his own ignorance.” In this piece I hope to explain why epistemic humility is a serious concern, and in subsequent pieces I’ll shift the focus to implications and responses.
Although it has become something of a buzzword recently, the philosophical history of epistemic humility is long and rich, with Plato’s Socrates serving as the original model. In his Meditations, Descartes outlined a radical doubt that cast everything we perceive through our senses into question. Hume forcefully argued that induction is irrational. Box famously said “all models are wrong”, and there’s no reason to except our cognitive models. And of course we have Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns: Because our ignorance is by definition unbounded, nothing that we currently take as fact is safe from revision or reversal based on new information.
Given the fact that humans are imperfect, in both the sense of being flawed but also of being incomplete, uncertainty is a necessary condition for growth. We cannot revise our beliefs while we are certain in them. In addition, uncertainty is a prerequisite for faith in a morally significant sense. Ignorance stemming from our undeveloped natures is a fact which we seek to overcome in this life, and ignorance of our eternal origins is an integral element of this mortal probation, freeing us to will to believe in an act that reveals, creates, or changes our nature. In both cases: ignorance is undeniable and certainty is damning.
And yet try as we might, a sense of certainty seductively insinuates itself into the our behaviors of belief. At even an unconscious level, we find uncertainty uncomfortable. It’s a primary component of cognitive dissonance, and many varieties of cognitive biases serve precisely to manufacture a greater sense of certainty while insulating our beliefs from doubt.
What’s more: neither intelligence nor education can help us avoid these reflexive spasms towards certainty. On the contrary, cleverness and awareness of the problem generate their own particular kind of cognitive bias: bias blind spots. According to a recent study (and this should be alarming to those who aspire to be part of an intellectual community!):
None of these bias blind spots were attenuated by measures of cognitive sophistication such as cognitive ability or thinking dispositions related to bias. If anything, a larger bias blind spot was associated with higher cognitive ability. Additional analyses indicated that being free of the bias blind spot does not help a person avoid the actual classic cognitive biases.
All this means that even if we acknowledge the logic of epistemic humility, in our actions we deny it far more often than we realize. Unconsciously suppressing cognitive dissonance entails unconsciously rejecting uncertainty. (You might even say that the natural man is an enemy to certainty.)
In order to be open to growth, we cannot merely assent to the logic of epistemic humility. We need to proactively embrace it, and I can think of two ways that we can do this. The first is to strive to enact Stendahl’s rules for religious understanding in all of our interaction with people with whom we disagree:
- When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
- Don’t compare your best to their worst.
- Leave room for “holy envy.”
These rules will not inoculate us from error—nothing can do that—but they provide a way to enact epistemic humility. (I’ll return to a more detailed discussion of the relationship between these rules and uncertainty in a later post.)
The second thing we must do is refuse to subvert cognitive dissonance through fictitious beliefs. I can probably explain this best with an example. I once had a discussion with a friend about the Second Coming (as Mormons are wont to do), and he expressed a high degree of confidence that we’d go through the whole world-ending apocalypse thing starting within the next 20-30 years. I responded by asking him if he was investing in his 401k, and he said that he was. At the maximum amount matched by his company, no less! I then asked him how much he expected to get back out of his retirement savings account in 30 or 40 years given the whole end times that would be happening in the interim.
Now the point here is not to debate the fine points of modern portfolio theory or risk-hedging as they relate to Armageddon. As it turns out, you can take your money out of a 401k without penalty for things like buying your first home, but that wasn’t his strategy. It hadn’t even occurred to him to consider his retirement planning side-by-side with his end-of-the-world anticipation. The two worlds—religious belief and practical consideration—were compartmentalized. I would argue that, since he was actually acting on the practical considerations, his belief in the imminence of the Savior’s return was, therefore, largely fictional. Although he didn’t realize this, of course, it had become a merely symbolic belief.
Cognitive dissonance, as with frostbite, is most dangerous when you stop feeling it. Contradictions within our beliefs should not be buried because they are the irritating grain of sand from which pearls of truth are made. Perhaps this is similar to what Joseph Smith had in mind when he said, “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”
In the next two posts I will provide two detailed examples—one religious and one secular—of this stubborn but humble refusal to back down in the face of confusion. After that, I’ll talk more about a more dangerous rejection of epistemic humility than compartmentalization and symbolic beliefs and provide examples and strategies for combating it.
And after that, I suspect my time will be up.