How Might Intellectual Humility Lead to Scientific Insight?

Jane Goodall
Scientist Jane Goodall studies the behavior of a chimpanzee in Tanzania in 1987.
image: Getty
December 10, 2012

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. Related Questions Does Quantum Physics Make it Easier to Believe in God? What Is It to Be Intellectually Humble?

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?