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The Loss of Intellectual Humility

It’s amazing how unwilling people are to reconsider their beliefs, even in light of persuasive new evidence to the contrary. Here’s one answer of why.

One of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov’s most beloved short stories, “The Darling,” describes a young woman who readily adopts the opinions of the people around her. When her first husband, a theater director, bemoans the public’s lack of refinement and desire for vulgarity in performances, it is not long before she parrots the same beliefs. When she marries a veterinarian after the theater director’s death, she pontificates about tuberculosis in livestock and foot-and-mouth disease until her husband, in a fit of embarrassment, grabs her by the arm telling her, “I’ve asked you before not to talk about things you don’t understand!”

“The Darling” speaks to a rather common phenomenon. Many among us seem to be disproportionately influenced by whichever speaker’s lecture we have most recently attended or by the author we happen to have most recently read.

But Chekhov articulates just one of the many follies that tend to inhibit productive dialogue. Another is the tendency to sculpt evidence to fit what one already believes. Instead of entering a conversation hoping to arrive at the answer most true, we grasp only at those facts that support our preconceived beliefs.

Those who claim that modern discourse is in a bad way observe that we rarely make progress in converting those on the other side to our view during debates over the appropriateness of assisted suicide, compulsory vaccination or gun control.

G.K. Chesterton, in his essay collection “Heretics,” writes: “The economists of the Manchester school who disagree with Socialism take Socialism seriously. … The man who understands the Calvinist philosophy enough to agree with it must understand the Catholic philosophy in order to disagree with it.”

Rather than dismiss the points of ideological opponents in an emotionally charged way, we should recognize that confronting those points seriously is necessary to sort persuasive logic from sophistry. After all, the so-called controversial issues tend to be controversial for the reason that both sides have at least a degree of legitimacy to their arguments.

It becomes curious why so many cling to their beliefs with such certainty, intractability to reason, that they are unwilling even to entertain the possibility of their own fallibility, how their infatuation with their views borders on making them what poet Wallace Stevens called “a lunatic of one idea.”

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A literary critic once remarked that a person’s first literary crush is the most important. The same is often true of ideologies, and as time passes, it can be especially difficult when confronted with persuasive arguments to the contrary to abandon a cherished childhood view, especially when it has become part of one’s identity. It is unpleasant and disorienting to our sense of self to think we have spent much time believing falsehoods.

Outlasting death

The adoption of positions that we are unwilling to reconsider regardless of new knowledge might be best explained by Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Denial of Death.” Becker takes as a premise that man is terrified by thoughts of death and the ensuing feelings of insignificance, so he seeks to add purpose to his life by joining a cause that will outlast his short stretch of physical existence by contributing to something more permanent.

This may help to explain why many philanthropists prefer to affix their names to a university building rather than donate to save lives from a tropical disease in a distant country.

Historians routinely speculate that John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry and insurrection against slavery were not so much the result of ideological conviction as they were a method of seeking meaning in the face of so many life trials. It was this ideology that became his life’s work, sustaining him through the deaths of nine of his children and his first wife, making the feelings that caused him to utter that he had a “steady, strong, desire; to die” pass.

The existence of competing ideologies calls into question the truth of one’s own. Since it is uncomfortable to have the cause we have given our lives to doubted, we can lash out violently against opposing ideas. For instance, for those who have made their life’s project being a missionary of a particular religion, the existence of a religion with different beliefs can be troublesome.

Intertwining a life project too closely with a particular ideology can mean seeking to further a cause without regard to its truth or feasibility.

Improving the state of discourse requires an awareness of these pitfalls and an emphasis on intellectual humility. Perhaps after all, the mark of the truly thoughtful person is the willingness to acknowledge that, though his positions may be well-reasoned and buttressed by evidence, they may very well be mistaken.

Erich Prince is a co-founder at Merion West. 

This article appeared originally in the July 5, 2016 edition of The News & Observer. 

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