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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Alan Watts and South Park

Alan Watts (1915 – 1973) was a great entertainer. A “philosophical entertainer” with the emphasis on the entertainer bit. Fortunately for us, his talks are available on YouTube. He was a fascinating person, as you can gather from the wiki page on him (linked above). My interpretation of Vedanta, Zen and Buddhism matches perfectly with his.  I think that at his core he was a Hindu. Wiki says —

Though known for his Zen teachings, he was also influenced by ancient Hindu scriptures, especially Vedanta, and spoke extensively about the nature of the divine reality which Man misses: how the contradiction of opposites is the method of life and the means of cosmic and human evolution; how our fundamental Ignorance is rooted in the exclusive nature of mind and ego; …

Theologically trained, he was an ordained Episcopal minister. He wasn’t overly impressed with the Bible. He wrote — Continue reading

Maya, Moksha, Nama and Rupa


Pondering the fact of death, I am reminded that impermanence is a central feature of the world we live in. The phenomenal world — of things and events — is called maya in the dharmic traditions (namely Jain, Hindu, Buddhist & Sikh.)

The world is maya. Many people simply translate it as “ the world is an illusion” but that is incorrect. The world is real. Maya does not mean that the world is unreal or that it is an illusion. It means something like this: the world as we perceive it is not what the world actually is. We cannot directly perceive the reality that is at the foundation of what exists. That reality is given a word — Brahman. Most of us cannot comprehend the Brahman because we are limited beings. Continue reading

Alan Watts Teaches Meditation

I was listening to a lecture “Alan Watts Teaches Meditation” (mp3 format) and I thought that I would share a bit of what he said on this blog. I enjoy listening to Alan Watts. Thankfully, there is a lot of great recordings of his available on the web. While in Berkeley, I used to listen to these dharma talks of his on a local public radio station. Anyway, I took the time to transcribe a few minutes of the talk. If anyone is interested in the audio files, let me know and I will tell you how to get them.
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