A Call for Intellectual Humility

"Those who seek the truth become humble persons, for they know that truth is difficult to be found..." - Pope Francis

It is unfortunate that the typical person is so strongly convinced of her own beliefs, when the process of attaining those beliefs was nothing more than the mindless absorption of opinions of those around her, followed by five minutes of thought. If moral truths were that easy to attain, philosophers would not have spent thousands of years thinking about them. In reality, ethical and political controversies are difficult to resolve, for a number of reasons.

First, discovering the core of the subject matter that distinguishes one argument from another is a laborious task, for to truly understand a position requires an understanding of its basic principles. And basic principles, given their nature, are difficult to uncover.

Second, since opposing positions often contain legitimate principles that one agrees with, one must undertake the arduous process of weighing said principles against one another. Commonly, this process is so difficult that it pushes people to question the sufficiency of their own intellectual abilities.

But even if these first two hurdles are overcome, there is another task of accepting the implications of one’s position. It is often the case that the core principles of one’s belief will logically lead to a conclusion that one does not want to accept, because it conflicts with another belief that one simultaneously holds. Unfortunately, it may take years before a person can make her numerous opinions consistent, if it is at all possible.

In light of the above, which is, to be sure, only a sample of the difficulties that plague the process of discovering truth, anyone who holds a strong position on a controversial issue ought to think about whether she has truly reflected upon the intricacies of the debate. Has she uncovered the necessary premises that support her conclusion? Has she sincerely engaged with others who disagree with her? And has she followed her belief to its logical conclusions? Or has she, like most who are opinionated, substituted critical thinking with hasty acceptance, and argument with regurgitation?

It ought to be acknowledged that truth is difficult to attain, so much so that it is indeed correct to say that philosophy makes slow progress. This can be seen in the fact that it is always Aristotle’s philosophical—and not his biological—work that is taught to younger generations. The questions that puzzled thinkers in ancient Greece are still relevant today, despite much spilled ink.

Am I suggesting, then, that those who have not spent a significant amount of effort into understanding an issue ought to suspend judgment? To a certain extent, yes. More specifically, I am arguing that one’s conviction ought to correlate with the amount that one has subjected one’s beliefs to the process of intellectual critique. And given that most of those opinionated have not done this, they should remain silent or at the very least be modest in their convictions. What they absolutely should not do is assume that their positions contain the entire truth while the opposing ones contain none, as that is almost never the case.

What would go a long way to hinder misguided conviction is the simple action of pausing to reflect. The next time one enters a disagreement with another, one should ask oneself the following questions: What are the core principles of our positions? Are both of us discussing the same topic? Are we using terms in the same way? Is there truth in what the other person is saying? Why is my position right? And what would convince me that I am wrong? If these questions were reflected upon even the tiniest bit, the vast majority of debates would be more fruitful, cordial, and intellectually honest. This, I admit, is quite demanding and therefore I am certain that there will be many cases where a person cannot answer these questions. When those cases arise, the proper response is to admit that one does not know the truth.