Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Intellectual Humility and the Assault on Truth

I change my mind. This happens relatively frequently, and for all kinds of reasons. My wife hands me a dessert that is supposed to taste like chocolate but is made from zucchini and something called goji berries. In my mind I tell myself, “This cannot possibly be any good.” But I take a bite and, to my utter astonishment, it tastes okay. It doesn’t really taste like chocolate, but it’s not bad. It’s edible. It’s more than edible. So I change my mind. The concept “zucchini/goji berry concoctions are bad” undergoes a transformation to something like “zucchini/goji berry concoctions aren’t as good as chocolate, let’s not get crazy here, but they’re okay.”

It happens. I adapt. I change. So I’m wondering what the zucchini/goji berry equivalent might be in modern American political discourse. Here is an article that argues for intellectual humility. And here is a cogent and well-mannered sentence from the article that serves pretty well as a thesis:

“We can similarly view intellectual humility as the wisest balance between, on the one hand, the belief that truth exists and is objective, and on the other, the knowledge that our access to the truth is subjective and therefore partial. Understanding this balance suggests that the search for the truth we revere is best undertaken in recognition of our limitations and in collaboration with others.

Who’s going to disagree with that? Not me. But when I drill down a bit, and when I try to apply the concepts to present-day American life and culture, I get stymied. For instance, I encounter on one side the contention offered by seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies and reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post that Russia directly interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and on the other side the contention offered by Donald Trump that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Intellectual humility, or the sorry version of it that exists in my heart and mind, insists that I don’t really know, that my access to the truth is subjective, colored by biased sources and hampered by my own limited understanding. Also, it insists on noting that I’ve been wrong before, about all kinds of things more important than healthy desserts, and that I could be wrong about present-day American life and culture.

Duly noted, my intellectually prideful side tells my intellectually humble side. But try this on for size, you quivering, prevaricating mass of spineless non-convictions:  while you shrug your shoulders and whimper, there are fundamental tenets of what it means to be an American, and what it means to be an adherent of Truth with a capital T at stake. Seventeen, count ‘em, seventeen U.S. intelligence agencies offer remarkably consistent testimony about Russian interference. The New York Times and The Washington Post, winners of multiple Pulitzer Prizes for journalistic integrity and excellence, report the same findings. Against them you have Donald Trump, who literally lies about the most silly and easily disprovable things, including the country where his father was born, the size of the crowd that attended his presidential inauguration, the notion that he won the popular vote in 2016, the belief that Mexico is paying for a border wall, and that somewhere deep in the unrecorded and hidden annals of U.S. history there was something known as “the Bowling Green Massacre.”

It’s not a fair fight. It’s not. I am all in favor of intellectual humility. I am not in favor of turning off one's brain. I am not in favor of denying what can be objectively verified. I am not in favor of calling truth lies or lies truth. I am against those things. I think they’re bad ideas, and I always will think so.

I will try to keep an open mind. Really, I promise. And zucchini/goji berries? Not bad.

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