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.

I am convinced (modulo epistemic humility) that much of the needless suffering in the world arises from hubris — the opposite of epistemic humility. Hubris — pride, presumption, arrogance. Certainly there are evil people who knowingly inflict suffering on innocent people. But there are well-meaning people who act with good intentions and end up inflicting serious harm to society. This is a toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance.

It’s hard to tell which of the two — the evil psychopaths or the ignorant do-gooders — are the greater curse on humanity; I think it’s the do-gooders.

We usually recognize the evil psychopaths because the harm they do is always immediately evident, and before too long we end up shooting or hanging them. But the harm the do-gooders do is usually unseen and unfolds over a long time. We don’t shoot do-gooders but we actually should.

We should politely ask do-gooders to cease and desist. After a bit of warning, though, we are justified in taking them out and shooting a few. That would convince the other do-gooders to stop and thus prevent future harm.

Here you may object — correctly — that this is not epistemic humility on my part. How do I know that someone is a do-gooder who will end up causing harm and therefore needs to be shot at dawn? The answer is that I don’t. There’s a simple way around this. Ask if a person is intent on interfering in any way in someone who’s minding his own business. If the answer is yes, then there are two possibilities. One, the interfering person is an evil psychopath who intends harm. Or two, it’s a do-gooder who doesn’t intend harm but ends up harming. In either case, the person needs to be shot.

Thus have I heard that the Buddha’s primary injunction was “First do no harm; then try to do good.” The first part is important. It implies that since we can’t really know if our act of interfering with others would harm them or not, it’s prudent to not interfere. The “don’t” comes first; the “do” comes later. I would modify that as “First do no harm; then don’t be a do-gooder.”

Just leave people alone. Don’t interfere. Legend has it that King Louis XIV of France asked industrialists what he could do to help business, and he got the reply, “Laissez-nous faire” which translate literally as “Leave it to us” and it implies “Leave us alone.” Simply don’t interfere with our business. We mind our business and you mind yours.

Interestingly, this concept of laissez-faire can be traced back all the way to China about 2,800 years ago. They call it wu wei — literally meaning “inexertion”, “inaction”, or “effortless action.” It’s an important part of Taoism. The ideas of Taoism resonates with me. I first came across them decades ago, before I knew any economics. Now that I have learned some economics, I realize why the economic principle of laissez-faire appeals to be intuitively.

Talking of the Tao, I am reminded of Alan Watts, the great entertainer and explainer. Here’s a bit from one of his talks:

The road to hell is paved with good intentions because all the do-gooders in the world, whether they’re doing good for others or doing it for themselves, are troublemakers. “Kindly let me help you or you’ll drown,” said the monkey, putting the fish safely up a tree.

We white Anglo-Saxon Protestants — British, German, American — have been on a rampage for the past hundred or more years to improve the world. We have given the benefits of our culture, our religion, our technology to everybody except perhaps the Australian aborigines. And we have insisted that they receive the benefits of our culture, even our political styles — our democracy. You better be democratic or we’ll shoot you.

And having conferred these blessings all over the place we wonder why everybody hates us. See because sometimes doing good to others and even doing good to oneself is amazingly destructive because it’s full of conceit. How do you know what’s good for other people? How do you know what’s good for you? If you say you want to improve then you want to know what’s good for you but obviously you don’t. Because if you did you would be improved.

This is an excerpt from a longer talk: why the urge to improve yourself. I recommend it.

Author: Atanu Dey


4 thoughts on “The Importance of Epistemic Humility”

  1. Part of the reason why I am deeply suspicious of even the most popular and most revered religious gurus is this. They almost invariably lack that humility.

    They talk confidently on literally any topic, an average person like me might not be able to even spell those topics but these all wise gurus connect dozens of such topics with their insights all while appearing wise.

    If a person does not say “I don’t know” often, there is a high chance you are dealing with a complete fraud.

    Here is Sadguru talking about Higgs Boson :

    Same person on ghosts and paranormal :

    On Aliens :

    On Capitalism and Communism :

    On rethinking economics :

    On why he never learned Sanskrit : ( He says he does not need to read the scriptures to understand them)

    I have only pointed out Sadguru here but the list of such know-it-all is far too big.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sadguru epitomizes the worst of the transgression against reason that is endemic amongst the “gurus” in India. The toxic combination of ignorance and hubris is never so evident as in what he propounds, as you so easily demonstrate by the few links you provide in your comment.

      It’s a sad commentary on the Indian mentality that people like Sadguru and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar are held up as exemplars of virtue. They should be tarred and feathered in a just world.

      Liked by 1 person

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