What Do We Know?
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What do we know?

Quote Page

“I know one thing:
that I know nothing”
-attributed to Socrates


What Does It Mean to Be Intellectually Humble?


Thinkers about the virtue of humility often quote the Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition, which says that to be humble is to have a low opinion of yourself. This makes humility seem pretty dismal, especially to people who have been steeped in the thought that we should like ourselves above all, and most recent thinkers reject it. If humility is to be a virtue, it must be a human strength. But of course, admission of our weaknesses can be a strength, and it is hard to get away from the idea that humility has something important to do with shortcomings. It seems clear that you don’t need humility to be reconciled to the fact that you’re beautiful, smart, talented, accomplished, generous, and lovable.

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Justin Barrett

Professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary.

I went to a news website, clicked on the headline story, and scrolled down to the comments section. There it was: people calling each other ignorant, uneducated, and stupid. It took me all of one minute to find evidence of incivility centered on questioning the intellectual inferiority of others. I don’t know if intellectual humility is at an all-time low, but it does seem that this virtue is in short supply at a time when it is greatly needed. With the Internet providing a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, and with higher education more accessible than ever before, we might expect a growing number of people to have a keen awareness of how much we don’t know and how much we depend upon the expertise of others.

Or we might not. We are smart, but perhaps the ways we become smart also make us smarty-pants.

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Peter C. Hill

Professor of Psychology at Biola University.

“Look out for number one.” “Grab for the gusto.” Though popular cultural slogans of decades past, their message is perhaps as relevant, or even more so, today. Wealth generation, personal advancement, self-actualization, physical appearance – just to name a few self-focused concerns -- are misunderstood indicators of success from which society and individuals often pay a price. What would life be like if government discourse was characterized less by inflammatory sound bites that demonize the opposition and more by respectful dialogue? What if the efforts to publish and secure funding in academia were driven by an intrinsic desire to get questions answered, to take pleasure in the advancement of knowledge, to enjoy seeing others get published, and to see it as an opportunity for mentoring? How much more effective would the corporate environment be if organizational leaders acknowledged their own limitations in the name of fostering team-based leadership structures?

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Eric Schwitzgebel

Professor of Philosophy at University of California-Riverside.

How well do you know your own mind?

You might think very well! If you pick a number without telling anyone, only you know the number you picked, and it would be bizarre to suppose that you might be wrong about it. If you ram your toe against the furniture, you know your pain immediately and intimately in a way no one else could. You know – of course you do! – your opinion about The Beatles, about onion rings, about the new dress code at work. Most philosophers in the Western tradition who worked on self-knowledge from the 17th through the 20th centuries assumed, and tried to explain or build a philosophical worldview grounded upon, the striking idea that we know our own minds differently and better than we know the physical world around us

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Tenelle Porter

Postdoctoral Scholar of Human Development at the University of California, Davis.

Silicon Valley may seem like an odd place to study humility of any kind. But in the last few years, Google, the valley’s juggernaut of innovation, named intellectual humility one of its five essential qualities for new hires. “Without humility,” said Laszlo Bock, the executive in charge of hiring, “you are unable to learn.”

Is he right? Although intellectual humility is only beginning to emerge on the social science scene, research that my colleagues and I have been doing for the last two years suggests that he may be on to something and that intellectual humility can actually foster learning.

First, it’s important to define the term. For the purposes of our research, we defined intellectual humility as acknowledging the partial nature of one’s understanding and valuing others’ intelligence, and we developed a survey to measure this version of intellectual humility.

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Robert T. Pennock

Professor of History & Philosophy of Science, and Computer Science & Engineering at Michigan State University.

The young woman noticed Charles Darwin’s grave and called her mother over to look. Her voice, with its Deep Southern American accent, was overly loud in the nave of Westminster Abbey, “Why would he be buried in a church!” Then, to my astonishment, she gave Darwin’s gravestone three sharp kicks. A few moments later her father appeared and they pointed out Darwin’s resting place to him. Loudly uttering his own opinion—“This is not where he belongs”—he too stomped his heel upon Darwin’s grave.

Having studied and written a book about creationism, I well knew how fundamentalists view evolution as evil. They see the Darwinian worldview not just as contradicting the Bible, but as undermining morality. As they see it, evolutionary scientists are doing the work of the devil. But it was still shocking to witness the desecration of Darwin’s tomb.

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Jason Baehr

Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University.

Students in early adolescence (ages 9-13) face some unique obstacles to intellectual growth. With increasing self-consciousness and a desire to fit in, they can become more inhibited, demonstrating a greater reluctance to wonder, ask questions, think hard, and pursue deep understanding. A safer route is to lie low, avoid caring too much about what they’re learning in school, and refrain from taking intellectual risks that might jeopardize their standing with their peers.

Such tendencies clearly can be detrimental to intellectual growth. Moreover, they are especially unfortunate given that during the same developmental window, adolescents are becoming capable of deeper and more sophisticated intellectual activity. From a cognitive standpoint, early adolescence brings new opportunities for asking thoughtful questions, engaging in complex reasoning, and cultivating the other skills and qualities necessary for critical thinking. Regrettably, these opportunities can go unrealized on account of strong social and psychological forces that work against intellectual engagement and risk-taking.

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Randal Rauser

Professor of Historical Theology at Taylor Seminary and author of Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Rethinking Christian Attitudes Toward Atheism.

Currently, the diplomatic relations between Christians and atheists are a total disaster. Indeed, you might call the current situation a cold war.

On the atheist side, Richard Dawkins labels his critics “fleas” and his religious interlocutors “faith-heads.” Bill Maher laughs at the “religulous” (a portmanteau of “ridiculous” and “religious”). And many an average atheist dismisses belief in God as akin to belief in Santa Claus, Zeus, or an infantile “sky daddy.” Christians are dismissed as irrational, cognitively arrested, and emotionally insecure.

While Christians often complain about this poor treatment, their view of atheists is really no better. Nor is their hostility toward atheists anything new. The great 18th century essayist and hymn writer Joseph Addison labelled atheists as vermin. The revered 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon derided them as worse than devils. And today the popular preacher and bestselling author John Hagee thunders from his pulpit that atheists are “brain-dead.”

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The Big Ideas

The Big Ideas program invites you to join us as we explore the most challenging questions facing humankind. Through open-minded inquiry, rigorous thinking, and civil, informed dialogue, we hope to enlarge our understanding of the universe—and our place within it.