Intellectual humility is a godly virtue — insights from life and scripture

Being able to change your mind is a good thing. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Being able to change your mind is a good thing. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
We have to be able to recognise when we are wrong and be prepared to change our mind, Lynne Taylor writes.

My first degree was in geography, and I studied climatology in 1989.

My then-boyfriend was studying meteorology at a neighbouring university and unlike mine, his lecturer was sure that global warming was caused by humans.

My lecturer’s explanation made sense to me: climatology looks at longer-term patterns, while meteorology is concerned with shorter-term changes. Looking further back enables us to see broader patterns of temperature rise and fall: we were experiencing natural cycles of warming. Cooling would come again.

From time to time, I’ve been curious about whether this lecturer had changed his mind about the causes of climate change. Unsurprisingly, like me, he has, and he’s written extensively on the topic, including a recent textbook on mitigating the effects of climate change.

He continued to pursue knowledge and understanding, reviewing evidence, and acting with curiosity and humility. And he changed his mind.

Such flexibility is necessary. All significant breakthroughs, whether medical, scientific, cultural, or theological, require curiosity and humility.

With new information, new findings, new experiences, our knowledge changes.

Acts 10 tells the story of the Apostle Peter changing his mind. He and a Roman Centurion named Cornelius both experienced visions in which God spoke to them. Cornelius was told to go find Peter. Peter received a repeated image of what he had previously understood to be unclean, now deemed acceptable to God.

Upon meeting Cornelius, he realised and communicated a message of expansion and acceptance. All — Jew and gentile alike — are loved and accepted by God. Gentiles converting to Christianity did not need to conform to Jewish religious and cultural conventions. Even uncircumcised, the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out on them.

While the fingerprint of God was clearly on Peter’s experience, his response might also be understood in terms of what psychologists call ‘‘intellectual humility’’.

Intellectual humility is characterised by being open-minded and willing to revise what you believe. Being curious and seeking new ideas and information.

Being realistic about your flaws and limitations. Changing your mind when the evidence changes. Being teachable and non-defensive. And changing your behaviour when new knowledge requires it.

Both my climatology lecturer and Peter (and the early Christians) displayed such intellectual humility. Intellectual as it was based on evaluating new information. Humble as it involved a significant change that recognised a previously held view needing revising.

Intellectual humility isn’t easy. Humans like certainties and can tend towards simple explanations.

We bring biases and preconceived ideas that can be difficult to shift. We frequently organise ourselves into groups that are defined by and reinforce our beliefs.

Intellectual humility requires both intellectual rigour — seeking out new information and being willing to learn from it, and humility — being prepared to admit we were wrong.

Intellectual humility isn’t easy. But it is necessary.

 Lynne Taylor is a senior lecturer in the theology programme at the University of Otago.