In Favor of Humility

Photo by Jayden Norris

There is nothing we can be entirely certain about. This is all that truly needs to be said in favor of humility.

Albert Einstein once said, “We know nothing at all. All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren. The real nature of things we shall never know.” How telling it is that one of the smartest men ever to grace the earth saw himself as no more than a child at school, constantly learning.

Science, the study of the natural world, absolutely requires humility. Scientific research is not carried out by those who are 100 percent certain of what they think they know, but by those who are aware of the extent of their own knowledge and want to increase it.

Richard Dawkins, the famed evolutionary biologist and public intellectual, expresses certainty about his findings and the findings of other scientists.

However, major scientific discoveries are rarely the work of a single person, but are rather collaborative efforts. While Dawkins is outspoken about his personal confidence in the scientific community’s evolutionary findings, it would do him no good to forget the sentiment of collaboration and teamwork they arose from.

I should hope that the scientists of any and all points in history remember that our scientific view of the world is never complete, and that no scientific research could ever get done if we stopped at every major finding and proclaimed to have finally discovered the grand design of the universe. Rather, science thrives on uncertainty and humility, it thrives on the decision to question the status quo and to reject dogma.

I associate hubris and certainty not with science but with faith. While in reality the world is chaotic and without a definitive pattern, it is more comforting to believe that one knows the nature of the universe, and/or that it has some grand design. I am loath to associate science with arrogance when at its root, science is the definition of humility.

Humility is characterized by the same principles that hold together science — we never have the whole truth, and we cannot be unconditionally certain of anything. Arrogance, on the other hand, is often characterized by the same principles as faith, “I am certain of what I know, what I think cannot be questioned, and if you don’t agree with me, you’re wrong.”

Throughout the 2012 U.S. presidential election the news was filled with reports of the candidates’ penchant for stretching the truth. We pit our candidates together in a debate, candidly ask them questions and proceed to judge who can present the most convincing, concise and hastily-formulated answer to a complex issue.

This is a double-edged conundrum. A candidate should come forth and remind us that he or she does not know everything and that some issues require a bit more thought and consideration. On the flip-side, the electorate must stop entertaining shows of arrogance and hubris and instead reward humility and the capacity for critical analysis.

While both candidates were guilty of deception this year, I saw the dichotomy between Romney and Obama as one of shamelessness and pride versus hope and clearheadedness in the face of an uncertain future.

Socrates was on the right track even in ancient times. He summed up the soul of an arrogant person when he said, “This man believes that he knows something, while not knowing anything. On the other hand, I, equally ignorant, do not believe that I know anything.” Surely it is better to admit to the incompleteness of one’s knowledge than to present an attitude of certainty, when nothing is certain.

I have observed that causality and chaos trouble humanity at least partially because our species exhibits a drive to be aware of its surroundings and to retain a level of control over them. Arrogance and projections of certainty take advantage of this desire as they provide us with the dangerous but comforting notion that we know the way the world works.

One will ultimately be more adaptable and gain a more complete knowledge if he or she remains open to new ideas and question even their most strongly held beliefs at every turn.

Ironically, our species is more influenced by the proclamations of those who seem sure of themselves and their knowledge than the questioning of social gadflies who implore us to look at things a different way, our own way or in a new light.

Our view of the universe is bigger than ever before, and it is still incredibly meager. We must abandon the comforting trap of thinking we know. Now is not the time for arrogant certainty, but for sincere inquisition and an open-minded spirit of adventure and learning.