The Wise Man Doubts Often, And Changes His Mind

[This is Part 1 of a 4-part series. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4]

I’m happy to have a chance to do a guest stint here at Times and Seasons, and over the next two weeks I want to use my borrowed soap box to talk about epistemic humility.

Epistemic humility is an awareness of the limits of our ability to know. It is an admission that we are ignorant of things that are true and that we accept as true things which are not. Hence the title, which comes from a longer saying of Akhenaten: “The wise man doubts often, and changes his mind; the fool is obstinate, and doubts not; he knows all things but his own ignorance.” In this piece I hope to explain why epistemic humility is a serious concern, and in subsequent pieces I’ll shift the focus to implications and responses.

Although it has become something of a buzzword recently, the philosophical history of epistemic humility is long and rich, with Plato’s Socrates serving as the original model.  In his Meditations, Descartes outlined a radical doubt that cast everything we perceive through our senses into question. Hume forcefully argued that induction is irrational. Box famously said “all models are wrong”, and there’s no reason to except our cognitive models. And of course we have Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns: Because our ignorance is by definition unbounded, nothing that we currently take as fact is safe from revision or reversal based on new information.

The natural response to these arguments tends to be tacit acceptance coupled with a dismissal of their practical relevance. Whether our first brush with solipsism comes from Descartes or the Wachowskis, we eventually decide that since we can’t ever really know whether or not we’re a butterfly dreaming we’re a person we’ll just carry on as though the question had never come up. But  I deeply believe that the problem of our reaction to uncertainty is vitally important to our spiritual health as individuals and our social health as communities.

Given the fact that humans are imperfect, in both the sense of being flawed but also of being incomplete, uncertainty is a necessary condition for growth. We cannot revise our beliefs while we are certain in them. In addition, uncertainty is a prerequisite for faith in a morally significant sense. Ignorance stemming from our undeveloped natures is a fact which we seek to overcome in this life, and ignorance of our eternal origins is an integral element of this mortal probation, freeing us to will to believe in an act that reveals, creates, or changes our nature. In both cases: ignorance is undeniable and certainty is damning.

And yet try as we might, a sense of certainty seductively insinuates itself into the our behaviors of belief. At even an unconscious level, we find uncertainty uncomfortable. It’s a primary component of cognitive dissonance, and many varieties of cognitive biases serve precisely to manufacture a greater sense of certainty while insulating our beliefs from doubt.

What’s more: neither intelligence nor education can help us avoid these reflexive spasms towards certainty. On the contrary, cleverness and awareness of the problem generate their own particular kind of cognitive bias: bias blind spots. According to a recent study (and this should be alarming to those who aspire to be part of an intellectual community!):

None of these bias blind spots were attenuated by measures of cognitive sophistication such as cognitive ability or thinking dispositions related to bias. If anything, a larger bias blind spot was associated with higher cognitive ability. Additional analyses indicated that being free of the bias blind spot does not help a person avoid the actual classic cognitive biases.

All this means that even if we acknowledge the logic of epistemic humility, in our actions we deny it far more often than we realize. Unconsciously suppressing cognitive dissonance entails unconsciously rejecting uncertainty.  (You might  even say that the natural man is an enemy to certainty.)

In order to be open to growth, we cannot merely assent to the logic of epistemic humility. We need to proactively embrace it, and I can think of two ways that we can do this. The first is to strive to enact Stendahl’s rules for religious understanding in all of our interaction with people with whom we disagree:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy.”

These rules will not inoculate us from error—nothing can do that—but they provide a way to enact epistemic humility. (I’ll return to a more detailed discussion of the relationship between these rules and uncertainty in a later post.)

The second thing we must do is refuse to subvert cognitive dissonance through fictitious beliefs. I can probably explain this best with an example. I once had a discussion with a friend about the Second Coming (as Mormons are wont to do), and he expressed a high degree of confidence that we’d go through the whole world-ending apocalypse thing starting within the next 20-30 years. I responded by asking him if he was investing in his 401k, and he said that he was. At the maximum amount matched by his company, no less! I then asked him how much he expected to get back out of his retirement savings account in 30 or 40 years given the whole end times that would be happening in the interim.

Now the point here is not to debate the fine points of modern portfolio theory or risk-hedging as they relate to  Armageddon. As it turns out, you can take your money out of a 401k without penalty for things like buying your first  home, but that wasn’t his strategy. It hadn’t even occurred to him to consider his retirement planning side-by-side with his end-of-the-world anticipation. The two worlds—religious belief and practical consideration—were compartmentalized. I would argue that, since he was actually acting on the practical considerations, his belief in the imminence of the Savior’s return was, therefore, largely fictional. Although he didn’t realize this, of course, it had become a merely symbolic belief.

Cognitive dissonance, as with frostbite, is most dangerous when you stop feeling it. Contradictions within our beliefs should not be buried because they are the irritating grain of sand from which pearls of truth are made. Perhaps this is similar to what Joseph Smith had in mind when he said, “By proving contraries, truth is made manifest.”

In the next two posts I will provide two detailed examples—one religious and one secular—of this stubborn but humble refusal to back down in the face of confusion. After that, I’ll talk more about a more dangerous rejection of epistemic humility than compartmentalization and symbolic beliefs and provide examples and strategies for combating it.

And after that, I suspect my time will be up.


20 comments for “The Wise Man Doubts Often, And Changes His Mind

  1. I enjoyed this post, and in your upcoming posts I hope you’ll deal with a couple points.

    Epistemic humility is great, but it can be maladaptive if it results in paralysis. At some point you have to get off the couch and get something to eat, even though you will never know for sure if the light is still shining or not when the refrigerator door is closed. Both for personal devotion and for academic scholarship, one has to be willing to evaluate the evidence at hand and then follow the best available interpretation, despite the very real possibility of missing evidence or faulty understanding.

    The other point I’d like to see you discuss is if epistemic humility can survive contact with antagonistic conviction. It seems to me that zealousness is often maintained not for its own sake, but as a reactionary defensive posture towards hostile and equally convinced detractors.

  2. Very thought provoking. My question is how does this relate to Eternal Truth? I understand that this is a good exercise in understanding our own bias and limitations, but I also believe in truth that will always be truth whether it is believed or not. If I understand a principle of eternal truth, isn’t it my obligation to not question it but learn how to integrate that into my life and fully live by it?

  3. I enjoyed this a lot. I try to apply these principles when I encounter any position foreign to my own, as in the past I have changed my beliefs about some very important issues simply by encountering and honestly considering the facts behind those opposing positions. When it comes to our political system in the US, I wish more people were willing or able to consider the other side with this kind of understanding.

  4. Jonathan-

    It’s certainly true that epistemic humility siphons off confidence, but in most cases this is probably a good thing, especially given the correlation between ignorance and certainty: when you don’t know very much all problems seem simple. I think that epistemic humility tends to eat away first at our least-substantiated convictions. And, in any case, the very need to act can be a good antidote to paralysis. Once you know that you’ve never going to be certain, it doesn’t make sense to wait around for certainty. I hope that I illustrate this in my coming examples, but it isn’t something that I had singled out to discuss explicitly (which is why I’ve written so much here).

    The question of dealing with antagonistic confrontation, however, is something that I’ve already got in mind for 1 or 2 of my posts, so I’ll definitely be looking at that one head-on.

  5. Chris-

    I believe in Eternal Truth, I’m not saying the truth isn’t out there, but just that it’s not in me. I’m also not denying that other people might, through direct revelation, have a kind of divine certainty that cancels out the need for epistemic humility on some range of ideas, but that is not how I have experienced revelation in my life.

    For the second part, I think that you don’t have to choose between questioning something and integrating it into your life. I think you can do both. In fact, I think you *have* to do both to be authentic.

  6. Very nice post, Nathaniel.

    Given what you’ve written, how do you make sense of scriptures like Mormon 9:27, “doubt not but be believing”? Related to Jonathon’s question about confidence, what are the implications of your thoughts for a robust understanding (and exercise) of faith?

  7. Nathaniel: In #6 you appropriately recognize that for all of our ignorance about our own biases, out own self-deceived approach to the world; nevertheless, we still must, of necessity, act. Given the pragmatic criterion of truth, the truth just is what works when we act on it. I suppose that is where faith comes in. We don’t have certainty until after having faith. E.g., when I started a family I had no idea how I would do it. Now after having essentially raised my children to adulthood I can see that my faith was justified. But I don’t remember doubting I would do it since my commitment itself created the working truth.

    The real challenge of epistemic humility which you appropriately call to our attention is that it may be confused with a lack of commitment. I was committed to my wife even though I knew we would both change, that I did not know her well when I married her (though I thought I did) and all kinds of issues that could have gotten in the way of my commitment by creating fear, hesitation, holding back and just flat out keeping a key to the back door if I wanted out. Instead, I went all in and it saw me through the times when fear and hesitation would have caused me to back out.

    If it is impossible to adopt a belief in the practice of one’s life, e.g., the belief that we are not free to act, that we are not morally responsible, etc. then even though we may believe we are not these things (as many in action theory do), we nevertheless must deny our beliefs every time we act contrary to them — or inevitably must think that we do even though we are severely deluded. We violate the pragmatic criterion of truth when we cannot act on our beliefs. But it seems that the mere fact that we must act when we are not certain also creates a bias — as studies show we are generally much more certain of our decisions being correct after we make them.

  8. Robert-

    Excellent questions!

    First of all, I think there are different kinds of doubts: productive doubt is about being receptive to new knowledge. Destructive doubt is about abandoning or forgetting what you once believed without any new information to motivate it.The first is rational, but the second is not.

    I think Moroni was warning against the second kind of doubt because that’s the model that is most consistently shown in the scriptures (see D&C 6:22-24).

    One more thing I’ll add is that I don’t think my “no such thing as certainty” position is necessarily universal. According to D&C 46, there are some who know that Christ is the Son of God and others who believe. I don’t think we can necessarily read “certainty” into that phrasing (I’m always leery of trying to be too technical with scripture), but even if we can this becomes an exception that proves the rule. After all, those who know do so through the power of the Holy Ghost, not by themselves.

    In any case, that kind of certainty (if it’s what the verse refers to) doesn’t seem to be one of my gifts. Which is as it should be. Gifts of the spirit are distributed unevenly to foster interdependence among the Saints.

  9. Blake-

    The real challenge of epistemic humility which you appropriately call to our attention is that it may be confused with a lack of commitment.

    I agree, and what I had hoped to show was that genuine epistemic humility not only doesn’t necessarily require either paralysis or lack of commitment, but in fact is a necessary element of authentic belief, and is therefore an element of rather than opposed to genuine commitment.

    I suppose what I’m suggesting is that we must balance between the rock of manufacturing negative doubt without good cause and the hard place of suppressing our genuine and completely rational fears, doubts, and uncertainties. I say “completely rational” not because there’s some defect in objective truth, but because we know that we’re imperfect and underdeveloped beings. From that weakness, doubts and ignorance will arise, and we can’t overcome them if we deny them, any more than we can repent of sin without first admitting it.

    Thus, a robust faith does not suppress or deny our ignorance and uncertainty, but rather embraces faithful action in spite of it. I guess you could compare it to the idea that true bravery is not the absence of fear, but right action in the presence of fear.

    In any case, this is exactly what I’m going to be talking about in the next post (tomorrow or Friday).

  10. Belief that there are many more things yet to be revealed to the Latter-day Saints means that we are knowingly ignorant of a number of things. Thus, we don’t know what is in the record of the Lost Tribes that Christ promised to reveal when he appeared to the Nephites. It means that we NEED to be listening to the teachings of prophets each General Conference, and we need to listen to the Holy Ghost as we read scriptures and pray because we have been promised that we can find “hidden treasures” of wisdom.

    Being in a constant state of receiving revelation means that we should be humble about what we do know and can know at any given time. That includes our knowledge of things about topics outside the Gospel itself.

    It seems to me that one of the reasons it is difficult for Mormons to establish religious dialogue with many Evangelical Christians is that they are doctrinally committed to the utter completeness and finality of the revelation in the Bible, so they feel that admitting uncertainty about the meaning of a particular scripture amounts to a denial of the Bible, and thus of God. Such folks reason that any admission on their part that Mormons have any truth is a betrayal of their commitment to an infallible Bible. That is what I see expressed in many Evangelical blogs and comments. They fear that new revelation could be a surprise, and believe that a surprise is a betrayal of the role of the Bible to be an unchanging foundation of faith.

    I think that the Bible itself hardly supports such claims for its own completeness. Rather it is the felt need for certainty that has elevated the Bible to such a role. The Catholic and Orthodox churches do not elevate the Bible to that degree, holding that the Church is prior to the Bible in authority and as a source of Giod’s revelation to mankind. But when the Catholic and Orthodox churches have been rejected in Protest, making the Bible a sole center of power and truth is one of the few alternatives to seeking new revelation.

    I think that Mormons who cannot adapt to the uncertainty that comes with belief in modern revelation may end up spinning off, either into Protestant absolutism or into Mormon fundamentalism and apostacy.

  11. “Unconsciously suppressing cognitive dissonance entails unconsciously rejecting uncertainty.” Makes sense once you point it out.

    “When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.” This makes sense to a large extent, but I think there can be more to a religion than just what the adherents see in it.

    “Cognitive dissonance, as with frostbite, is most dangerous when you stop feeling it.” Sure, but how do you tell the difference between being numb to an inconsistent belief vs. holding a truly consistent belief? Or are we to expect *all* of our believes to have some dissonance in them?

    Interesting thoughts here. Good post.

  12. Very interesting post, Nathaniel. To mix things up, I pose a couple of questions:

    -How can we “know” that the “knowing” spoken of in the scriptures is the same thing as the type of knowledge you write of here?

    -How do you think the changes in how we perceive knowledge and belief since the pre-modern era affect all of this?

  13. #14 Good question. What kind of knowledge are we talking about? I have attempted to enact Stendahl’s rules for religious understanding while reading this post, and my holy envy is directed toward your ability to use the examples of Socrates and Will Smith in the same paragraph. Well done. I do have some questions and comments however:
    “We cannot revise our beliefs while we are certain in them.” – Are you sure?
    “uncertainty is a prerequisite for faith in a morally significant sense.” – Why?
    “At even an unconscious level, we find uncertainty uncomfortable.” – In the spirit of Joseph Smith’s proving contraries, I suggest that the opposite is true. For example, when the Lord was confronted by the mob in Gethsemane, he asked “Whom seek ye?” When the mob answered “Jesus of Nazareth” the Lord’s response of absolute certainty concerning his own identity, “I am he”, literally floored them (John 18:8). Truth and certainty make a lot of people uncomfortable. While there is much that we don’t know, and much yet to be revealed, there are absolute truths of which we can and should be certain (

  14. What evidence do we have that you are properly epistemically humble about the arguments and conclusions you advance in this post? I don’t see any.

    If you exempt your method from your method, that’s arbitrary. But if you don’t, you end up as a snake eating its own tail and no ground left to stand on.

  15. Nathaniel, you’ve written this right on my wavelength. These are things I’ve been thinking about for some time now. My words for it were “Intellectual humility for The Thing Not Considered.”

    I’ve also been thinking recently about this idea that there are two kinds of doubt: active and passive. Passive doubt being the ingredient that allows our faith to truly be faith (as opposed to knowledge). Active doubt being the acidic antithesis of faith.

    They are different enough that I would be hesitant to even use passive doubt in its verb form (as it is in the Akhenaten quote). I would rather say something like, “A wise man allows for doubt…” or maybe we can find a better term for passive doubt altogether.

    I’m looking forward to the next posts!

  16. Now that I’ve got the newest post up, I’ll try to give good replies to some more of these excellent questions:


    How can we “know” that the “knowing” spoken of in the scriptures is the same thing as the type of knowledge you write of here?

    The scriptures might not even mean the same thing between one instance of “know” and the next beacuse they were not written as formal theological texts. So I really can’t say with confidence that I am speaking of the same kind of knowledge. I’m trying to speak as much as possible in plain English, non-technical terms that are generally applicable.

    How do you think the changes in how we perceive knowledge and belief since the pre-modern era affect all of this?

    I think that question is too big to address in the comment section! :-)


    “We cannot revise our beliefs while we are certain in them.” – Are you sure?

    Well, I’m not certain, of course, but it’s hard to imagine how somebody could replace or modify a belief of which they were truly certain. I don’t know how that would work.

    “uncertainty is a prerequisite for faith in a morally significant sense.”

    If faith is merely about our ability to get the right answer to an objective question based on available evidence, then I don’t see how it can be a morally relevant behavior.

    “At even an unconscious level, we find uncertainty uncomfortable.” – In the spirit of Joseph Smith’s proving contraries, I suggest that the opposite is true.

    Let me try to phrase this more specifically: we find uncertainty within ourselves to be very uncomfortable, and coming into contact with incompatible information will provoke that uncertainty, which is what I think your example describes.

    I encourage you to just read through a list of cognitive biases, however, and see how many of them function by manufacturing a false sense of certainty. The ambiguity effect, anchoring, confirmation bias, quite a few of the big ones work this way.

    Adam G-

    What evidence do we have that you are properly epistemically humble about the arguments and conclusions you advance in this post? I don’t see any.

    If you exempt your method from your method, that’s arbitrary. But if you don’t, you end up as a snake eating its own tail and no ground left to stand on.

    The problem seems to arise from your desire for foundationalism, but that model is broken. Consider, for example, that philosophy is not conducted by perfectly rational agents but by human beings. All of us are conceived as single-celled organisms and spend many years growing and developing and learning and acquiring beliefs and habits before we have any sort of capacity for serious rational deliberation or introspection. By the time we start thinking about thinking, we’re already hopelessly entangled in our own histories, our genetic legacy, and a vast and complex network of social interactions. You write that there is no ground to stand on, and you’re absolutely right, but that’s not a defect in my theory. That’s a reflection of the human condition.

    If you’re looking for the foundation of my theory you will look in vain, because what I’m trying to articulate is what happens when we realize that there is no foundation. As Otto Neurath describes, the result is not hopeless:

    We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.

    There’s no snake-eating-tail-paradox in the simple observation that “everything is uncertain”. It can be applied to itself without any problem, and in fact I amuncertain that certainty is always elusive. (I’ve said as much in the comments.) Nevertheless, I don’t have any personal sense of certainty, and so I present this as a model (not the model) for coping with the belief that everything is belief.

  17. Nathaniel, I have loved since I joined the Church, the Article of Faith that says “we believe the Bible to be the word of God, *as far as it is translated correctly*”. I think this really throws the Evangelical Christians,and others, but for the first time, I was welcomed the thought that the Bible might have some errors… I’d always been concerned about that. I’m afraid I don’t speak with as much sophistication as some of the rest, but I understand your premise, and agree. Thanks for the thoughtful presentation.

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