Epistemic Humility

Today's post expands on some of the thoughts from last week's post. I'll start by offering a few more examples of those sneaky epistemically arrogant statements:

1) I can't run a marathon at my age.
2) Lose 50 pounds? Maybe I can do 20.
3) It's impossible for me at my age to deadlift twice my weight. No way.
4) You want to eat healthy? It's gonna cost you...
5) I think the stock market is rigged against the little guy.

Remember our conversational autist from last post, that imaginary person who tactlessly tells people what they're actually saying? Once again, let's imagine what she might say here in response to any (or all) of these statements:

Wait. What you're really saying is "I refuse to find a solution." You know that's pure ego protection, right? And it's kind of intellectually lazy too. Think about it: Is it really possible that you, limited you, just a tiny human being in the vast expanse of the universe, can "know" that there's no solution to something? Seriously, be honest: how can you *know* there's no solution?

Just to be extra-extra clear: do not say things like this out loud. Use your inside voice.

However, the oddly good thing about conversational autists is they tell you the truth when you don't want to hear it. Especially when you don't want to hear it.[1] And as we'll soon see, "I can't find a solution to X" and its even more disempowered cousin "There is no solution to X" are both statements of supreme epistemic arrogance. Both are false too.

Now, nobody likes to think of themselves as arrogant, certainly not epistemically so. Which is why, on the intellectual and abstract level, we're all fairly comfortable with the idea that we usually don't really know very much. Furthermore, we think we have an accurate assessment of the boundaries of our knowledge. "I know what I'm talking about when it comes to the stock market, but when it comes to neurosurgery, I'm definitely out of my depth. And by the way, Russia definitely interfered in our elections."

See how easy it is to leap blithely beyond our circle of knowledge? We simply do not know our boundaries: we overstate and understate[2] them, and we do so below the level of conscious awareness. Once again, the things we "know" just ain't so.

I realize I'm not going to go very far in life telling my readers that they're a bunch of epistemically arrogant fools who don't even know what they don't know. So, try not to remember that part. Instead, what I really want to convey in this post is the value of being humble about what you think you can't do.

To see what I'm getting at, let's take another look at those five confidently-stated, epistemically arrogant statements above, and let's consider them from a perspective of deep humility. Let's state those statements with a total lack of confidence. Try it.

You'll see that things get weird in a hurry, because the less confidently you state "that's impossible" type statements and the more humble you are about them, the more possible they become.

If you know you most likely don't know--which is the definition of epistemic humility by the way--you might as well choose thoughts, ideas, and possibilities that produce the best outcomes. This might invert how most people think about "truth" and "falsehood." But the truth is, when it comes to questions about our own personal agency, we almost always have profoundly incomplete knowledge of what's true, what's false and what's possible.

So assume you can do it, that you can find a solution, that it is possible, and that the solution is out there waiting for you to find it. To do so is not only more epistemically humble, it's the more empowering choice.

Readers, share your thoughts!

[1] Readers might wonder how I know so much about conversational autists. Let's just say I'm still learning to use my inside voice.

[2] I'll leave it to readers to guess which is the more common error.

READ NEXT: On Writing for Casual Kitchen

No comments: