The Importance of Epistemic Humility

In one of his interviews, Milton Friedman was asked if he would stop someone from doing something that he, Friedman, knew to be wrong. Is it his moral duty, the interviewer pressed on, to prevent someone from doing what could lead to harm. Friedman replied (and I am paraphrasing here; I will find the exact quote later) that yes, it was his moral duty but he added, “But how can I be sure that I am right? How can I know for certain? Because I can’t know for sure, I should resist the urge to interfere with another.”

This is what I would call epistemic humility. Epistemic — of, relating to, or involving knowledge and cognition. Humility — the attitude that acknowledges weakness or incompleteness in one’s capacities. Epistemic humility is when you know that you don’t know, and resist the pretense of knowledge.

People who hold absolutely rigid views on matters that are intrinsically unknowable or incompletely known cause a lot of misery. They lack the wisdom to realize that as imperfect beings we are subject to all sorts of illusions and have at best an incomplete understanding of the world. We have to be especially wary of our beliefs. Bertrand Russell was once asked if he was prepared to die for his beliefs and he replied, “Certainly not, after all I may be wrong.” That’s prudent.

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