On intellectual honesty and accepting the humiliation of error
I. The virtue of intellectual honesty.
Honesty is a greatly underrated epistemic virtue.
There is a sound reason for thinking so. It turns out that probably the single greatest source of error is not ignorance but arrogance, not lack of facts but dogmatism. We leap to conclusions that fit with our preconceptions without testing them. Even when we are more circumspect, we frequently rule out views that turn out to be correct because of our biases. Often we take the easy way out and simply accept whatever our friends, religion, or party says is true.
These are natural habits, but there is a solution: intellectual honesty. At root, this means deep commitment to truth over our own current opinion, whatever it might be. That means accepting clear and incontrovertible evidence as a serious constraint on our reasoning. It means refusing to accept inconsistencies in one’s thinking. It means rejecting complexity for its own sake, whereby we congratulate ourselves for our cleverness but rarely do justice to the full body of evidence. It means following the evidence where it leads.
The irony is that some other epistemic virtues actually militate against wisdom, or the difficult search for truth.
Intelligence or cleverness, while in themselves an obvious benefit, become a positive hindrance when we become unduly impressed with ourselves and the cleverness of our theories. This is perhaps the single biggest reason I became disappointed with philosophy and left academe; philosophers are far too impressed with complex and clever reasoning, paying no attention to fundamentals. As a result, anyone who works from fundamentals finds it to be child’s play (I thought I did, as a grad student) to poke holes in fashionable theories. This is not because I was more clever than those theoreticians but because they simply did not care about certain constraints that I thought were obvious. And it’s easy for them in turn to glibly defend their views; so it’s a game, and to me it became a very tiresome one.
Another overrated virtue is, for lack of a better name, conventionality. In every society, every group, there is a shared set of beliefs, some of which are true and some of which are false. I find that in both political and academic discussions, following these conventions is held to be a sign of good sense and probity, while flouting them ranges from suspect to silly to evil. But there has never yet been any group of people with a monopoly on truth, and the inherent difficulty of everything we think about means that we are unlikely to find any such group anytime soon. I think most of my liberal friends are—perhaps ironically—quite conventional in how they think about political issues. Obviously conservatives and others can be as well.
Another virtue, vastly overrated today, is being “scientific.” Of course, science is one of the greatest inventions of the modern mind, and it continues to produce amazing results. I am also myself deeply committed to the scientific method and empiricism in a broad sense. But it is an enormous mistake to think that the mere existence of a scientific consensus, especially in the soft sciences, means that one may simply accept what science instructs is true. The strength of a scientific theory is not determined by a poll but by the quality of evidence. Yet the history of science is the history of dogmatic groups of scientists having their confidently-held views corrected or entirely replaced. The problem is a social one; scientists want the respect of their peers and as a result are subject to groupthink. In an age of scientism this problem bleeds into the general nonscientific population, with dogmatists attempting to support their views by epistemically unquestionable (but often badly-constructed and inadequate) “studies”; rejecting anyone’s argument, regardless how strong, if it is not presented with “scientific support”; and dismissing any non-scientist opining on a subject about which a scientist happens to have some opinion. As wonderful as science is, the fact is that we are far more ignorant than we are knowledgeable, even today, in 2017, and we would do well to remember that.
Here’s another overrated virtue: incisiveness. Someone is incisive if he produces trenchant replies that allows his friends to laugh at the victims of his wit. Sometimes, balloons need to be punctured and there is nothing there when deflated—of course. But problems arise when glib wits attack some more complex theories and narratives. It is easy to tear down and hard to build. Fundamentally my issue is that we need to probe theories and narratives that are deeply rooted in facts and evidence, and simply throwing them on the scrap heap in ridicule means we do not fully learn what we can from the author’s perspective. In philosophy, I’m often inclined to a kind of syncretistic approach which tips its hat to various competing theories that each seem to have their hands on different parts of the elephant. Even in politics, even if we have some very specific policy recommendation, much has been lost if we simply reject everything the other side says in the rough and tumble of debate.
I could go on, but I want to draw a conclusion here. When we debate and publish with a view to arriving at some well-established conclusions, we are as much performing for others as we are following anything remotely resembling an honest method for seeking the truth. We, with the enthusiastic support of our peers, are sometimes encouraged to think that we have the truth when we are still very far indeed from having demonstrated it. By contrast, sometimes we are shamed for considering certain things that we should feel entirely free to explore, because they do contain part of the truth. These social effects get in the way of the most efficient and genuine truth-seeking. The approach that can be contrasted with all of these problems is intellectual honesty. This entails, or requires, courageous individualism, humility, integrity, and faith or commitment to the cause of truth above ideology.
It’s sad that it is so rare.
The problem with most people laboring under error (I almost said “stupid people,” but many of the people I have in mind are in fact very bright) is that, when they finally realize that they were in error, they can’t handle the shame of knowing that they were in error, especially if they held their beliefs with any degree of conviction. Many people find error to be deeply humiliating. Remember the last time you insisted that a word meant one thing and it meant something else, when you cited some misremembered statistic, or when thought you knew someone who turned out to be a stranger. It’s no fun!
Hence we are strongly motivated to deny that we are, in fact, in error, which creates the necessity of various defenses. We overvalue supporting evidence (“Well, these studies say…”) and undervalue disconfirming evidence (“Those studies must be flawed”). Sometimes we just make up evidence, convincing ourselves that we just somehow know things (“I have a hunch…”). We seek to discredit people who present them with disconfirming evidence, to avoid having to consider or respond to it (“Racist!”).
In short, emotional and automatic processes lead us to avoid concluding that we are in error. Since we take conscious interest in defending our views, complex explanatory methods are deployed in the same effort. (“Faith is a virtue.”) But these processes and methods, by which we defend our belief systems, militate in favor of further error and against accepting truth. (“Sure, maybe it sounds weird, but so does a lot of stuff in this field.”) This is because propositions, whether true or false, tend to come in large clusters or systems that are mutually supporting. Like lies, if you support one, you find yourself committed to many more.
In this way, our desire to avoid the humiliation of error leads us into complex systems of confusion—and, occasionally, into patterns of thinking that can be called simply evil. (“The ends justify the means.”) They’re evil because the pride involved in supporting systematically wrong systems of thought drives people into patterns of defense go beyond the merely psychological and into the abusive, psychologically damaging, and physical. (“We can’t tolerate the intolerant!” “Enemy of the people.” “Let him be anathema.”)
What makes things worse is that we are not unique atoms each confronting a nonhuman universe, when we are coming to grips with our error. We are members of like-minded communities. We take comfort that others share our beliefs. This spreads out the responsibility for the error. (“So-and-so is so smart, and he believes this.”) It is much easier to believe provably false things if many others do as well, and if they are engaged in the same processes and methods in defending themselves and, by extension, their school of thought.
This is how we systematically fail to understand each other. (“Bigot!” “Idiot!”) This is why some people want to censor other people. (“Hate speech.” “Bad influence.”) This is how wars start.
Maybe, just maybe, bad epistemology is an essential cause of bad politics.
(I might be wrong about that.)
It’s better to just allow yourself to be humiliated, and go where the truth leads. This is the nature of skepticism.
This, by the way, is why I became a philosopher and why I commend philosophy to you. The mission of philosophy is—for me, and I perhaps too dogmatically assert that it ought to be the mission for others—to systematically dismantle our systems of belief so that we may begin from a firmer foundation and accept only true beliefs.
This was what Socrates and Descartes knew and taught so brilliantly. Begin with what you know on a very firm foundation, things that you can see for yourself (“I know that here is a hand”), things that nobody denies (“Humans live on the surface of the earth”). And as you make inferences, as you inevitably will and must, learn the canons of logic and method so that you can correctly apportion your strength of belief to the strength of the evidence.
There is no way to do all this without frequently practicing philosophy and frequently saying, “This might or might not support my views; I don’t know.” If you avoid the deeper questions, you are ipso facto being dogmatic and, therefore, subject to the patterns of error described above.