Intellectual Humility is a Virtue

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. James 3:13

Celtic Cross Crop2Several years ago I posted on a short book by Josh Reeves and Steve Donaldson: A Little Book for New Scientists: Why and How to Study Science. One chapter in this book deals with humility and … The Known Unknowns. In addition to the passage from James above, many other passages come to mind.

All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:5

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. Philippians 2:3-4

And several from Proverbs.

When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. 11:2

Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honor. 15:33

Humility is the fear of the Lord; its wages are riches and honor and life. 22:4

What is humility? The most common definition I’ve found is “the quality or condition of being humble,” not a particularly useful definition. Somewhat better is the definition from the Cambridge Dictionary “the feeling or attitude that you have no special importance that makes you better than others; lack of pride.“This is a little better, but doesn’t quite get it. Humility brings wisdom and comes from wisdom when it is an intellectual humility, a humility that realizes that we are finite in our understanding. In the context of science, or theology for that matter, intellectual humility is the realization that one almost certainly has some misconceptions and wrong ideas and should be open-minded enough to accept input and consider new ideas. This doesn’t mean lack of confidence or a wishy-washy uncertainty, but a willingness to be continually learning. Intellectual humility is generally thought to be a virtue in scholarship and in science – although it far too often isn’t. Scientists regularly over step reasonable bounds, and sometimes defend a view with the same kind of dogmatic certainty found in other arenas.

I recently saw a short video from the Templeton Foundation dealing with intellectual humility and its importance for growth. Only three minutes – worth a look:

Intellectual humility does not prevent one from coming to conclusions and arguing for a specific view. Intellectual humility requires a willingness to listen and to learn. I’ve listened to a number of talks by N.T. Wright and he will sometimes make a comment such as: 20% (or some other percentage higher or lower) of what I’m about to tell you is wrong; the problem is, I don’t know what 20% it is. This certainly doesn’t keep him from making the argument or teaching the class, but it does cultivate intellectual humility to keep it in mind, both in the speaker and in the listener. This is what makes us teachable and allows us to grow.

Reeves and Donaldson have more to say on the topic of intellectual humility and the potential pitfalls for the Christian and for the scientist. But perhaps it is best to wrap up with their conclusion.

As the Apostle Paul put it, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?”‘ (Romans 11:33-34). To acknowledge that one might be wrong, and to admit it when one is wrong, is the gateway to greater discovery. Thus the route to deeper insight – be it scientific, theological, or the intersection of the two – begins with intellectual humility. p. 89

How should we practice intellectual humility?

What does it mean for the church?

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(This is edited and expanded from an earlier post on the topic)

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1 Response to Intellectual Humility is a Virtue

  1. Meghan says:

    I’m referencing the verse you used from Romans. I think it would be helpful if people don’t have the expectation that they always have to be right. I think this turn the conversation into a contest.

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