Rationality & intellectual humility

If you're not prepared to change your mind then you are, by definition, irrational

Dave Kinkead Jul 6, 2020

Despite what you might have heard about the Dunning-Kruger Effect, most people are pretty good at acknowledging when they aren't good at something ... most of the time.

Lot's of people are happy to say they aren't very good with foreign languages or at mathematics. Some people are even prepared to admit that they aren't good drivers (not us men, though).

But I'm yet to meet someone who is happy to say they are irrational.

Yet despite this, for many of those who think they are rational (at least most of the time), there are clear signs that indicate when they are not - and a clear sign of irrationality is a lack of intellectual humility.

Intellectual humility is much more than just a laudable virtue.

Humility is a laudable virtue. When you think of a humble person, who do you think of and what traits do they exhibit? They certainly aren't going to be braggarts or brimming with over-confidence. They won't be showing off, advertising their successes, or ignoring their failures.

Rather, they are likely to avoid these behaviours because they are acutely aware of their own flaws and limitations, their strengths as well as their weaknesses. A humble person is someone who is willing to honestly assess their own abilities and therefore can do so more accurately.

Intellectual humility extends this concept to epistemic domains, which is to say into the area of knowledge claims. Intellectual humility is a virtue because it helps us avoid errors of over-confidence in stating what we think is the case, or what we know. Intellectual humility is a virtue because it leads to more accurate beliefs more often.

But intellectual humility is much more than just a virtue. It is an essential condition for rationality.

Rational beliefs conform to reason, irrational beliefs don't.

Being rational means being reasonable which in turn means being agreeable to reason. And it is this agreeableness that is so important. Being agreeable to reason requires us to give reasons for our beliefs and listen to the reasons that others give for theirs.

Simply put, being agreeable to reason means that the beliefs we hold should conform to the reasons we have for those beliefs. Rational beliefs move from supporting reasons to supported belief, from evidence to conclusion - a process we call justification.

So, being agreeable to reason requires that we change our beliefs as new information or evidence comes to light. Being rational means being ready to change our mind.

Yet many people reason in the opposite direction. They start with a belief and then seek out pieces of evidence that support it while ignoring any conflicting evidence - a process we call rationalisation (which is a rather unfortunate name as there isn't much rational about it).

As humans, we can't help but interpret new information and make sense of the world through the lens of our existing beliefs. Unfortunately, this can also result in a strong tendency for prior belief bias. Existing beliefs tend to irrationally persevere even in the face of good reasons to change them.

But by cultivating the virtue of intellectual humility, both within ourselves and within our students, we can overcome our tendency for belief bias. By being willing to admit when we are wrong and to change our minds when new evidence arises, we can avoid acting dogmatically.

If you are not prepared to change your mind then you are, by definition, irrational.

So, right now I'd like you to think about a belief you strongly hold and one you are confident you are right about ... say the moral permissibility of abortion, or our obligations to deal with climate change.

Then ask yourself ... are you prepared to change your mind about this subject? What evidence would it take to change your belief?

Because if you aren't prepared to change your mind, then you're irrational by definition. But then you wouldn't be reading this article, would you?