How Might Intellectual Humility Lead to Scientific Insight?

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Philosophers known as “virtue epistemologists” claim that the goods of the intellectual life—knowledge, wisdom, understanding, etc.—are more easily obtained by persons possessing mature traits of intellectual character, such as open-mindedness, teachability, and intellectual courage, than by persons who lack these virtues or who are marked by their opposing vices.  Here I focus on the virtue of “intellectual humility” and ask what relevance it has for the pursuit of scientific knowledge. I argue that intellectually humble scientists have a stronger likelihood of winning knowledge and other intellectual goods than those lacking this virtue. Intellectual humility leads indirectly to scientific insight. It does not super-charge our cognitive powers or improve scientific techniques, so much as it changes scientists themselves in ways that allow them to direct their abilities and practices in more effective ways.

Humility is a contested term. Some thinkers wrongly describe it as thinking oneself as more lowly or less accomplished than is the case. We do not think a surgeon intellectually virtuous who enters the operating theater overcome with humility in this sense. Others describe humility as the capacity to conduct a frank and sober assessment of one’s true strengths and weaknesses. This is not humility, but honesty or truthfulness, which are no doubt aided by humility’s power to suppress forms of pride that obstruct honest self-appraisal.

Humility is a deeply anchored disposition that marks persons remarkably free from pride, or inordinate self-love in its many forms—selfish ambition, snobbishness, conceit, arrogance, and presumption, to name just a few. This is often because excessive self-regard is swamped by a more virtuous concern for knowledge, wisdom, or the well being of others. Humility also works to detect and check the stirrings of pride, where persons might yet be tempted by pride, though in its most mature form, humility does not need to overcome contrary inclinations.

What makes humility intellectual humility, in contrast to the moral humility that suppresses our everyday desires to seek the spotlight? Intellectual virtues, including intellectual humility, are so designated because they are most obviously at work in our intellectual endeavors, in our research, writing, academic conferences, and in everyday forms of intellectual exchange, so that we might obtain intellectual goods—knowledge, understanding, warrant, etc. Intellectual humility opposes forms of pride such as undue concern to dominate others, or excessive resistance to criticism, which often frustrate our quest for the various intellectual goods.

Some Species of Pride and Their Effects on Scientists and Scientific Practice

Snobbishness and chauvinism share a disposition to associate oneself in thought and practice with superior persons while looking down one’s nose or depreciating persons or classes of persons of lesser rank. Scientific researchers display the intellectual variant of this vice when they unduly suppose their own school of thought, their own way of thinking and doing so superior to the alternatives that they unjustifiably dismiss other points of view, methodologies, or practices. We might imagine snobbish Freudians looking down upon the therapeutic techniques of behaviorist or humanistic psychologists. In doing so, however, they risk losing out on insights that might supplement or even correct Freudian practice. One of intellectual chauvinism’s more extreme forms leads to scientism, the view that only the empirical, experimental methods of the physical sciences yield true knowledge, leaving all other academic disciplines to traffic merely in opinion. So construed, this form of intellectual pride fosters closed-mindedness that risks cutting us off from persons and ideas that potentially contribute to our growth in intellectual goods.

In contrast to ideological chauvinism, world-renowned primatologist, Jane Goodall testifies that her research into chimpanzees, at times grueling and dangerous, and spanning over thirty years, would never have succeeded had she not ignored the prevailing dogma of the scientist as utterly dispassionate, impartial observer. By her own admission, Jane Goodall loved the very things she sought to understand. She loved the chimps, named them, spent years cultivating their trust, and only then, she insists, was she able to witness chimp behaviors no other human had observed. Her intellectual achievements were won, in part, because she resisted the conventional orthodoxy of scientist as dispassionate observer, so dominant in her day.

Conceit is a form of pride that moves people to form an unwarranted high opinion of their merits and excellences. It is easy to imagine that a conceited scientist suffering from an exaggerated sense of his own brilliance would resist criticism more readily than a scientist whose humility protected him from this form of pride. Paradigmatically, all scientific results must be reproducible, and the system of checks and balances constitutive of good scientific practice frequently corrects earlier results. Articles must be refereed, data assessed for accuracy, and experimental results reproduced.  So it is integral to science, as a self-correcting discipline, to receive criticism, and to be prepared to admit that some particular theory or practice is incomplete or incorrect.

Suitably humble scientists are alive to the possibility that their expectations about how nature should behave may be wrong. Philosopher of science Israel Scheffler dubs this openness to correction “a capacity for surprise,” to which intellectual humility surely contributes.

Two of the twentieth century’s most famous theoretical physicists offer a contrasting receptivity to surprise. Ronald Clark, Einstein’s outstanding biographer, writes that Einstein stubbornly refused to accept indeterminacy in the universe, which allowed statistical chance into the universe: a view Einstein famously dubbed a case of “God playing dice with the universe.” “Einstein refused to be convinced,” writes Clark, and as a result ended his career cut off from the newest developments in his field.[1] Nobel Laureate Subramanyan Chandresekhar was once asked how he was able to do innovative work in physics well past the age at which most physicists reach their peak. His response is a revealing contrast to Einstein’s.

For lack of a better word, there seems to be a certain arrogance toward nature which people develop. These people have had great insights and made profound discoveries. They imagine afterwards that that fact that they succeeded so triumphantly in one area means they have a special way of looking at science which must therefore be right. But science doesn’t permit that. Nature has shown over and over again that the kinds of truth which underlie nature transcend the most powerful minds.[2]

Nature has a way of dispelling the great conceit that all her ways can be captured within the frame of a single scientist’s perspective. Humility makes scientists receptive to this lesson.

Scientists are not born, but made, usually after a prolonged period of apprenticeship under senior researchers who impart crucial knowledge and technical proficiency. Practicing scientists are beneficiaries of a deposit of knowledge that they did not earn, but inherited. This fact and a modicum of humility should work against hyper-autonomy, a species of pride that disinclines us from acknowledging dependence on others, and from accepting help from them. Humility corrects any illusions scientists may harbor that they are self-made intellectuals. Humility thus combats unteachableness, a companion of hyper-autonomy, making us more open to instruction. On the flip side, it combats egotism that might move senior researchers to be unduly attentive to their own interests, ignoring the training of the very apprentices who may be crucial members of a research team. Intellectually virtuous scientists are concerned to impart knowledge as well as to obtain it.

Domination is a species of pride disposed to excessive exertion and enjoyment of control over others and, by extension over one’s environment. A scientist in the grips of domination sees nature less as something to be understood and respected, than as something to be conquered and used as it suits the dominator. This mindset says “if it can be done, it should be done,” whether it means making genetically enhanced humans or weapons of mass destruction. The insight that humility here makes possible is moral, not empirical. It reveals that the methods of science, and the uses to which scientific knowledge is put are morally bounded. The notorious Nazi and Tuskegee experiments yielded knowledge, but at appalling cost. After seeing the terrible use to which the atomic bomb was put, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the famous physicist in charge of the Manhattan project, came to regret ever having been a part of the project. “In some crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish,” said Oppenheimer, “the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge they cannot lose.”[3] Humility opposes the Faustian temptation to pursue knowledge at all costs, or at least without fully counting the costs.

The spirit of scientific domination is about control, subjugation to human mastery, and about forcing nature to surrender its secrets. Intellectually humble scientists, by contrast, retain a capacity for awe and wonder in all nature’s works. Wonder is appropriate to the recent discovery that 94% of the universe is comprised of dark matter and dark energy, which lie beyond our current perceptual grasp. That we may occupy a multiverse reinforces the humbling fact that parts of the universe will forever remain mysterious.  Yet it is no mystery that willful recklessness by humans can upset nature’s delicate balance, in some cases irreparably. By fostering respect for nature, humility may, perchance, motivate scientists to learn from nature while harmoniously coexisting with her. Humility, not domination, makes more likely a habitable world in which future generations of scientists can study and delight.

[1] Ronald W. Clark, Einstein, The Life and Times (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1971), p. 534 – 537. Einstein’s attitude while characteristic of conceit, may have been motivated by other factors.


[2] Subramanyan Chandresekhar, quoted inA Passion to Know: Twenty Profiles in Science, ed. Allan L. Hammond (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984) p. 5.


[3] Physics in the Contemporary World, Arthur D. Little Memorial Lecture at M.I.T. (25 November 1947).


Questions for Discussion:

1. Might not advances in scientific knowledge and understanding be just as effectively motivated by pride as humility? Might not vanity for professional recognition and rewards drive scientific research as effectively as humility?


2. Genesis 1: 26 indicates that humans are to have dominion over all the earth. How can we exercise dominion without lapsing into prideful domination?


3. We can distinguish the quality of humility from some of the emotional states to which humility may make us susceptible: e.g. shame and contrition upon doing some thing cheap and mean to someone. What other emotional states does humility make possible that are nevertheless not identical to humility?


4. Psychological studies show that most persons asked to assess their merits and abilities rate themselves as above average—the Lake Woebegon Effect—and this contributes to our overall mental well being. Does humility, then, work against our mental health?

Discussion Summary

I portrayed virtuous humility as a deeply anchored disposition that marks persons free of pride’s preoccupation with status, acclaim, public applause, and other manifestations of pride in its many species. Humble persons enjoy a mode of being remarkably untroubled by where they place in some pecking order, or by the fact that someone else may be surpassing them in some theater of competition. Typically such persons have their sights set on higher prizes: e.g., acquiring knowledge and understanding, doing one’s work well, tending to the needs of one’s family, ameliorating the plight of the poor, or pleasing God. They pursue genuine and lasting goods rather than the ephemeral goods of status and attention.

I also suggested very briefly that humility sometimes works to detect and check the stirrings of pride. The element of self-control is present in humility as it is in some other virtues. The courageous person is not free from fear, but rather successfully recognizes and manages her fears. So too, I suggest, humility is sensitive to and able to tamp down forms of inordinate self-love. Whether this capacity for self-control is a proper part of humility or the separate virtue of self-control at work in the interests of humility depends on the disputed issue of how one individuates the virtues.

My account of humility failed to convince some readers who prefer to think of humility as the capacity to believe accurately concerning one’s strengths and weaknesses, one’s good and bad character traits. I call the accurate assessment of personal excellences and deficiencies “honesty,” which, I say, is aided and made all the more likely by humility. Because humility as the capacity for accurate internal audits is so common an alternative to the account of humility I offered, it invites the question why this should be so.

Perhaps the disagreement stems from confusing causes with their effects. Vicious pride causes epistemic blindness. Conceited persons exaggerate their merits, and are therefore unable to judge accurately the true extent of their praiseworthy traits or accomplishments.  Arrogant persons falsely believe themselves entitled to goods and free from burdens the rest of us bear because of their alleged superiority. The arrogant person’s specious sense of superiority bars him from seeing the truth about what he is and is not entitled to in this life. Generally speaking, grandiosity, narcissism, egoism, and other species of pride cause epistemic blindness that undermines our capacity for accurate self-audits.

Humility opposes pride, and insofar as one is free of excessive self-regard, one is less susceptible to epistemic blindness, and therefore more likely to conduct sober and honest self-appraisals. Humility is not identical to honesty, but insofar as it opposes pride and epistemic blindness,  it paves the way for accurate self-assessment. So it is correct to say that humility and honest self-assessment are bedfellows, so to speak. The virtue of humility is a chief cause of honest self-assessment, but they are not thereby identical.

Regardless of how they defined humility, most respondents agreed that the academic community in general, and scientific practice in particular would be better served by humble rather than, say, arrogant practitioners. I suggested that a community of virtuously humble scientists would be more open to surprise and the correction that is sometimes required from having one’s preferred ways of thinking challenged. Humble scientists would not always insist on being the lead author of some team research effort, but would generously forward the career of their protégés. Humble scientists would be less likely to view nature as something to be mastered and exploited, and more as something to be respected and nurtured.

Is there empirical support to sustain my speculations? Recently, some philosophers and social scientists have challenged the notion that the virtues we acquire steadfastly fit us for excellence across the whole range of routine human experience. They argue instead that our virtuous actions are highly circumstantially dependent. For example, some studies suggest that the likelihood of a bystander lending aid to a distressed person is affected by whether or not they are in a hurry, or whether they had just found a coin planted by the experimenter. These experiments call into question whether we possess virtuous humility, or any other virtue trait, in the deeply anchored, default way in which virtues are often portrayed. Virtue skeptics need to recall that virtues are indexed to circumstances. Someone might possess courage fitting her to a very wide range of circumstances, but be undone by circumstances that, as Aristotle says, “overstrain human nature and that no one would endure (NE 1110a25).

Even if scientists and others possess virtuous humility as a deeply anchored habit, we may still ask if Chandrasekhar’s conviction about the fruits of humility is supported empirically. Do humble scientists, overall, do more to advance the enterprise of science that their viciously proud peers? I am unaware of on-the-ground empirical research that supports the widely shared conviction that humble scientists will reap a greater share of intellectual goods. But it strikes me as a project worth pursuing.

New Big Questions

1. Do humble scientists, overall, do more to advance the enterprise of science than their viciously proud peers?

2. How do we foster moral virtues in ourselves and others?

18 Responses

  1. epcharles says:

    Thank you for this article! In my thinking, one of the most important traits for scientists is to be humble in the sense that the world is right no matter what. I came to this thinking through early educational experiences, including reading the autobiographical work of psychologist B.F. Skinner (who was profoundly humble in some respects, but not others). Skinner notes in his early years becoming angry when the animals in his experiments did not do what they were “supposed” to do. He overcame this by realizing the animal could never be wrong, and latter he was lead to many important discoveries by leaving his initial hypotheses behind and refocusing on the behavior he did not expect. 

    Turning to your more specific discussion questions:

    1. …Might not vanity for professional recognition and rewards drive scientific research as effectively as humility?

    I think the current “crises” in psychology shows that the drive for professional recognition also puts tremendous pressure on scientists to engage in questionable practices. Though few resort to outright fraud, even the encouragement of a culture of overstatement and flexible analysis and reporting standards can be dangerous for a field. Further, the drive for professional reward often comes at the expense of casual curiosity – seeing new methods and techniques, looking at other’s data, and seeking crucial experiments that could fail. This too can lead fields in bad directions. (I discuss these problems and solutions further <a href =>here</a&gt;.)

    4. Psychological studies show that most persons asked to assess their merits and abilities rate themselves as above average—the Lake Woebegon Effect—and this contributes to our overall mental well being. Does humility, then, work against our mental health?

    I have wondered about this as well. I cannot, however, help but thinking that even “above average” people should still be humble, and so the two feelings are not in as much conflict as they initially appear. As a personal confession, I think I am quite good at a great many things. However, there is nothing I do where I don’t know there are people better than I am, and in most cases far better than I am. 

    For example, I am currently a student of Aikido, and am quite good given the amount of time I have been training. That said, the humility studying Aikido can generate is still huge. Obviously one is less skilled than their teahers, but you can find interviews with top Aikido sensei, people practicing for 50 years, who will say that they could still improve techniques they learned in their first years. To have the best in the world demonstrating extreme humility has a very positive impact on students, and I wish there was more of that in science. When I advise my college students, I suggest that they try to determine what they are both good at and find enjoyable, then never forget that they have a lifetime of improvement ahead.

    • Jay Wood says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments, which raise the question of how we learn intellectual humility. Humility as a virtue doesn’t happen to people like chronic asthma or some other malady.  There’s a story to be told about how we become humble persons. Must it be painfully acquired in the school of hard knocks, or by having our inflated sense of self punctured by deflating experiences, or are there less painful ways? Skinner learned it, as you note, by having his expectations of how he thought nature should behave brought up short. His presumption gave way to a willingness to be taught by nature. Your Aikido masters, themselves elite practitioners of the martial art, model a lack of conceit (exaggeration of our merits and excellence) by seeing themselves always as in need of improvement—a powerful lesson for their students. And should any student forget this lesson, I’m sure the masters have less subtle ways of conveying it! 

  2. Robert Emmons says:

    Excellent and provocative essay. In regards to discussion questions #4, humility contributes to superior mental health via its effects on social relationships. Humble prople are better-liked and are rated as more effective in various occupations. Because satisfying relationships are the strongest predictor of mental health (happiness, well-being, flourishing) I would predict that humility would enhance mental health overall.

    • Jay Wood says:

      I agree. I have argued in support of your claim that humble people (scientists in particular) are more effective in their work. My anecdotal evidence supports the claim that they are also better liked. We often expect and find famous people to be self-absorbed. But when we encounter persons of some renown who are down to earth, who converse with us without putting on airs, and seem genuinely interested in what we have to say, we do not forget it, and are quick to comment to others: “he was just like an ordinary guy, and very likeable.” Pride, or inordinate self-love, obstructs the social connections foster deep friendships and intimacy, and few would deny the centrality of friendships for the flourishing life.   


  3. Mark Christensen says:

    I think the issue of epistemic humility needs to be considered in a wider context.  I see the issue more in terms of a Faustian dilemma. We must assume some level of arrogance in order to progress.  We already “know”, for example, we cannot understand God.  Yet if we truly accepted such fatalism, there would be no motivation to improve.

    It’s a seemingly impossible choice: give up the search and never know why we exist or attempt to conquer the impossible.

    There is a way through the dilemma: use reason to understand why God (and other Big Questions) is a mystery.

  4. TPaulus says:

    Thank you for this very helpful article.  You write the intellectually humble are more likely to secure intellectual goods.  I think in the long run you are right.  However, it seems important to make some distinction between the acquisition of knowledge and the acquisition of wisdom.  One can imagine that someone posessing some of the vices you mention (e.g., pride, selfishness, domination) might be quite adept at accumulating the kinds of knowledge that suits his or her own parochial interests.  Think of a shrewd lawyer who makes a killing bringing forth litigation solely for the purpose of personal profit:  surely he excels at acquiring the knowledge needed to build and argue the case and exploit the loopholes. But, of course, (if you will permit the moral judgment) these pursuits are short sighted in that the knowledge is co-opted for a self-serving agenda that likely has a corrosive affect on the lawyer and society in general.   It seems the lawyer is plenty good at getting knowledge. The problem is that he doesn’t apply that knowledge appropriately, and so he isn’t good at getting wise.  I imagine that if the he were humble, he would abandon the self-centered program and would seek a way to add knowledge he could wisely apply toward the cause of justice.  

    I think this point also relates the discussion question (#2) on the relationship between dominion and domination.  It seems one difference here is in that dominion in this context is about using knowledge benevolently, for the cultivation and flourishing of that which one has power over– with reference to the greater good before God.  Meanwhile domination is about using knowledge to exploit and to promote selfish interests at some perhaps even unforseen cost to the good of others and the self.   

    • Jay Wood says:

             Thank you for your thoughtful reply. In your example, it’s not clear that the shrewd lawyer’s pursuit of the requisite legal knowledge is motivated by its ego-expanding potential as much as by greed. He wants to make a killing, as you say. Nevertheless, we don’t have to search far for examples that do illustrate your point that knowledge can be sought for the sake of its ego-expanding potential. In his book,The Double Helix,” A Personal Account of the Structure of DNA, James Watson candidly admits that he and Francis Crick were motivated by more than a desire for scientific knowledge; they sought sole place in the history books for having discovered DNA’s structure, and the acclaim that would accompany it. They were inordinately driven by the desire for fame, prestige, and such extrinsic goods to knowledge as the Nobel Prize, which, along with Maurice Wilkins, they eventually won. They dreaded that Linus Pauling might make the discovery first, and were not above making use of Rosiland Franklin’s crystallographic photographs of DNA without her permission. Watson and Crick would appear to offer a counter-example to my claim that humble scientists are better situated to reap a rich harvest of intellectual goods.

             A moment’s reflection, however, suggests that Watson and Crick’s preoccupation with acclaim wasn’t essential to their discovery. Their intelligence, scientific expertise, and native interest in the problem could have served as sufficient motivation. Indeed, when Linus Pauling heard about their discovery, Watson reports that “his reaction was one of thrill,” suggesting that his joy was in the knowledge discovered, not the prizes associated with its discovery. Rosiland Franklin’s biographer, Anne Sayre, writes “her ambitions were never for status or power.” Fame appears to have played little or no part in motivating Watson and Crick’s closest competitors.  A world in which scientists sought knowledge mainly for fame would be far less generous, cooperative, and nurturing of younger scientists than is case.  

  5. Ian Church says:

    Thank you for the article! You’ve raised some exciting and extremely important issues!

    Let me take a stab at the first discussion question.

    Prima facie, humility is the virtuous mean between arrogance and diffidence. The humble person does not think too highly of himself/herself, nor is he/she completely self-deprecating. Likewise, intellectual humility is presumably the virtuous mean between intellectual arrogance and intellectual diffidence. The intellectually humble person is presumably someone who (roughly) does not think too highly of his/her beliefs; what is more, however, the intellectually humble person is also presumably someone who (roughly) does not think too little of his/her beliefs. In short, intellectual humility is arguably something like (or minimally) believing as you ought – believing with the firmness the given belief merits.

    Now the “ought” of this account of intellectual humility is, no doubt, under-described. By and large, I think we can feel free to plug in our favorite theory of normativity and run with it; nevertheless, no matter how we explicate the normativity undergirding intellectual humility, it presumably contains a veritic, truth-tracking component. Perhaps, for example, the firmness of our beliefs should be proportioned to the reliability of the cognitive faculties that produced it.

    This account of intellectual humility that I’ve been sketching can, I hope, give us reason for thinking that scientific knowledge and understanding will not be as effectively driven by (intellectual) pride as (intellectual) humility. Fundamentally, scientific research should be guided by the pursuit of truth. By my lights, however, intellectual arrogance, vanity, or pride will roughly amount to believing a given process, belief, theory, hypothesis, etc. is more veritic, more truth-tracking than is merited. And as such, a scientific research program that is driven by intellectual arrogance will have a greater chance of being misguided and will take more missteps than a scientific research program that is driven by intellectual humility.

    • Jay Wood says:

      Thank you for your thoughts about intellectual humility.  You describe intellectual humility as “believing with the firmness the given belief merits,” where firmness is determined by “the reliability of the cognitive faculties that produced it.” I think your account actually names another intellectual virtue: “intellectual firmness,” where persons have the appropriate level of “hold” with respect to their beliefs. Dogmatists embrace their beliefs too firmly and, I would argue, Pyrrhonian skeptics too lightly. (See Roberts/WoodIntellectual Virtues(Oxford, 2007)). Sometimes people become set in their ways, calcified in their beliefs. We can imagine someone saying, “I’ve always believed that thus and such is the case, and I’m not about to change my mind at this stage of life.” Here we have a person who has calcified intellectually, and whose firmness of belief is not a function of its reliability, but born out of a desire to avoid the difficulty of re-thinking some issue. I agree that this is intellectually subpar, but it’s not clear that this person’s reluctance to rethink some belief is owing to vanity, arrogance, conceit, or some other species of pride. Nor would someone necessarily lack humility who, untutored in statistics and probability, formed a belief with greater firmness than probabilistic reasoning strictly allows. In fact, we can also imagine this same person being quite willing to reassess her level of firmness upon being corrected. In sum, I don’t think it will do to analyze intellectual humility as a function of one’s beliefs conforming to the reliability of the faculties that produced it. But I do think you’ve put your finger on another important intellectual virtue. 

  6. Benson says:

    Ego involvement and unthinking acceptance of the views of oneself and one’s peer group are features of the human condition.  The scientific enterprise attempts to deal with these in a  systematic way, only partly successfully, but its tenets are perpetually under review and subject to correction.  The same can not be said for religious and political beliefs where humility is conspicuously absent.

  7. Peter Samuelson says:

    Regarding the “Lake Woebegon Effect,” what is good for the goose might not be good for the gaggle (including the gander).   My insistence on being right is only good for others if I am right.  If I hold a false belief (in my abilities, for example) and others depend on that belief (that I can really do what I think I can do),  my “Lake Woebegon” view of my merits and abilities may serve me and my mental health but could be detrimental to the health and well being of others who depend on me to deliver.   When we turn from the personal to the interpersonal, we tend to become more humble.  Studies show that when individuals know others will hold them accountable for their merits and abilities, they tend to be more realistic about them.  Peer review, central to the discipline of science, could be a considered a built in mechanism for intellectual humility as it, at least in theory, holds scientists accountable for their findings.    

    This works well for science because the “facts” are more readily verifiable (again, in theory).  It is more problematic for other areas of disagreement where the facts are in dispute.  I have in mind the current debate in Washington over whether stimulus spending or deficit reduction is better for an economy in recession.  Both sides can produce evidence to support their theory, and are therefore accountable for their beliefs.  So accountability alone will not resolve this dispute.  There must also a willingness to set aside prior beliefs to find the best solution – what I would call a “common interest in the truth.”   Some might find taking such a stance personally depressing, but it is in the best interest of our commonwealth.   It is this interest in something bigger than one’s own self-interest (a commonwealth, for example, or the truth) that I believe is one crucial mark of intellectual humility.

    • Jay Wood says:

      Thank you your comments. They raise several interesting points deserving comment. You make the assessment of “merits and abilities” central to your account of humility. I have suggested in my brief essay that accurately assessing one’s merits and abilities is the work of honesty. Of course, when we clamor after acclaim, status, and the praise of others, honesty is made more difficult, and conceit, the exaggeration of our merits and abilities, is more likely. Knowing that our data will be checked for accuracy may make us more intellectually cautious (still another intellectual virtue), but it may not make us more humble. I can imagine a scientist seeking status being very cautious with data, for she knows that only good results will win her the status she seeks. 

      Not every dispute is easily settled by checking the data, as you point out. Whether, in the face or intelligent disagreement by an intellectual peer, sticking to one’s guns is epistemically unjustified or dogmatic is the subject of a lively debate in contemporary epistemology. I tend toward the view that retaining a belief in the face of peer disagreement is not necessarily unjustified or unhumble.

  8. mattjarvinen says:

    Thanks to Dr. Wood (and fellow commenters) for the space to discuss a virtue like humility.  Humility often seems out of place in realm of modern science, despite the fact that the framework of contemporary scientific research has “humble” components embedded within its architecture, such as processes of peer-review and surrendering raw data for the purpose of the substantiation of research claims.  Unfortunately, these virtuous checks and balances can seem more like hoops to jump through than an indelible part of the scientific journey.  It is refreshing to see humility allowed off the bench and into the game of critical reflection on eudaimonia.  

    I am particularly interested in Dr. Wood’s third question.  Awe, wonder, and surprise, are all mentioned in the article as aspects of a humble disposition.  I imagine fear plays a central role as well.  The academic world can be overwhelmed with fear: fear of appearing naive, fear of not being an expert, fear of losing one’s academic reputation, or ultimately losing one’s job, etc.  Fear often places people in a defensive position, hunkered-down to protect themselves from threat (see LeDoux’s work on fear and cognitive bias).  This is no place for the kind of open, collaborative discussion that would foster scientific insight.  Properly humble dispositions must involve an appropriate regulation of fear (amongst other emotions) that allow it to incite openness, wonder, precision, and caution, rather than a tendency towards cognitive closure.  

    • Jay Wood says:

      I think you’re on target to note the connection between fear, or insecurity, and pride. Fear and insecurity prompt us to shrink from public attention.  We commonly overcompensate for fear by erring in the opposite direction, thus risking pride, the chief opposing trait to humility. Persons who think their status is threatened work all the harder to retain it. Humble scientists direct their attention to work well done, and let status take care of itself. 

  9. ianful says:

    I wondered what I could add to the discussion about your wonderful essay, and just started writing on the back of an envelope about my own experiences in scientific and medical research.

    1.      I have found that scientists driven by pride are intensely competitive, seem to be an unhappy lot, and don’t really care much about others. Humility got me and others further in scientific research than vanity ever did. To me, pride belongs in the rubbish heap of human possibilities.

    2.      Dominion does not mean to dominate, but manage with all things considered ie with humility. However, we have taken ‘dominion over’ to mean to dominate, destroy, exploit, and plunder to our heart’s content, in order to satisfy the cult of domination, power, and materialism.

    3.      Unconditional love.

    4.      ‘Most’ is a key word. I have noticed that ‘most‘ persons seem to swing between self-pity and self-importance. I have also noticed that relatively few persons are truly humble, and learned humility is fake. The humble have true identity, are not preoccupied with thinking, have integrity and care about others. However, the status seekers get the greatest rewards in these times, and in the short term; but ultimately their pride brings them unstuck. J. D. Watson and Einstein are good examples of this. The truly humble will get there in the end because they are open to the influence of the Holy Spirit. They only have to ask and they receive. The Lake Woebegon effect may serve to puff up my self-esteem, but this is fragile anyway, and I find that humility works for my mental health.

    • Jay Wood says:

      You say, “learned humility is fake.” If we are not born virtuously humble, how else do we acquire it except by learning it? Do we not learn it by imitating persons such as Jane Goodall and Subramanyan Chandresekhar, who were devoted to their respective subjects of study, and not to enhancing their reputation? Can we not nurture humility within ourselves by adopting disciplines that check the pursuit of status? Suppose someone noticed your virtuous humility, and asked you for advice about how she too might be humble like you. What would you say? 

      • ianful says:

        My answers are from along my path to humility.

        I believe that we are all born righteous, but inheritance of traits from ancestors may handicap our interaction with others during life unless we elect to change. We can imitate humble persons, and I see this as a ‘fake it until you make it’ approach. Persons learning in this way can end up with a mixed bag of personas – each for a different occasion. From what I have seen of Jane Goodall, she followed her internal guide and interacted appropriately with her subjects of study. Had she followed her ego, then she would have been continually seeking advice and validating her approach with other animal behaviourists, such is the fearful and insecure nature of the ego.

        For me, I was effectively ambushed by God, finding myself in a place devoid of emotional support, and with a Bible and a Koran to read. I took the bait and liked the reward of self-awareness and understanding I received. I then pursued self-awareness courses and these helped, but found these were polishing and strengthening my ego so it would look better to others. After this, I returned to a long slow path of surrendering to God. My soul was opened and God became my trainer. I had to surrender everything, including my will. In exchange for my will, I received access to the will of God, and was no longer navigating by my wits in the dark. Humility, unlimited support, and a true identity (from the soul) were bonuses. My soul is in charge and my ego is its servant, but I still can fall from grace if I don’t use my self-awareness to keep my ego in check.

        What would I say to someone wanting virtuous humility?

        Do everything to increase your self-awareness and self-discipline to limit the ego. Also nurture humility within yourself, adopting strategies and disciplines to maintain it. Then if you have the opportunity – surrender to God, who will complete the transformation for you.

  10. Ian Church says:

    Thank you for the comment. Maybe one man’s intellectual firmness is another man’s intellectual humility.

    Again, by my lights, intellectual humility is neither thinking too much or too little of one’s own beliefs—(roughly) holding one’s beliefs with the firmness they merit. (To be sure, we can try to cash this out in terms of the reliability of cognitive faculties, but that’s not something I am committed to.) While someone who is calcified in their beliefs—unwilling to change their mind, despite good reasons to the contrary—may not necessarily be guilty of arrogance or pride (as moral vices), they are (by my reckoning) guilty of intellectual arrogance or intellectual pride (as epistemic vices).

    Now, we may disagree about whether what I am describing is intellectual humility or “intellectual firmness” (perhaps a topic more suited for previous BQO conversations:, but would you agree that intellectual humility should have at least some veritic, truth-tracking, aiming-at-truth component to it? If so, then I think my main point can still stand. To put it roughly, given (i) that intellectual humility, as an intellectual virtue, contains some veritic, truth-tracking component, (ii) that intellectual arrogance, as an intellectual vice, is less concerned with being veritic, and (iii) that scientific research should be guided by the pursuit of truth, then it seems to me that (all things being equal) scientific research would be better served by intellectual humility than by intellectual arrogance.

    Of course, I’m open to the thought that I’m wrong about all of this; and I’m certainly trying not to hold my beliefs regarding intellectual humility more firmly than I ought!

    Thank you once again for a great article and a great discussion!