“Faced with the choice of changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.” —John Kenneth Galbraith
Humility: Good and Bad
Proper humility is difficult—both to be it and to understand it.
The word ‘humility’ is used in our society to mean several different things, and not all of them are good or useful.
Take the humble student, illustrated by Eliezer, who is encouraged to study harder for his test but replied, “No, it wouldn’t work for me; I’m not one of the smart kids like you; nay, one so lowly as me can hope for no better lot.”
This isn’t humility, it’s social modesty! As Eliezer points out, when told to be more humble people tend to associate this with social modesty. Saying, “What makes you think you know all the answers? You should be more humble!” is criticizing for claiming too much social status. The student is “humbly” lowering his status, but doing nothing about the original situation (that he should study harder).
A second, and more common use of humility is as an excuse to shrug. Its most classic usage is, “but you can’t know with certainty that it’s true!”
Student: I can’t know with certainty that my answers are correct, so why review them?
Creationist: You can’t know with certainty that evolution is true, so why believe it?
Flat-earther: You can’t know with certainty that the world is round, so why assume that it is?
These are merely excuses not to believe or do something—while making them seem oh so modest. These are not reasons to not believe something—though they may sound like reasons! “But you can’t be certain,” is a Fully General Excuse to not change your beliefs. If you or someone else ever uses that sentence, it should set off alarms and red flags in your head!
The problem with both of these types of humility is that the person takes no action to improve the situation.
I must confess that false humility was one of the main things preventing me from accepting evolution for so long: an embarrassing lack of true humility.
So what exactly is good humility? Proper humility causes you to take action to become stronger. Being humble is being aware that you are a flawed human who is capable of making mistakes, and doing something to correct them.
Like the student who double-checks her answers before submitting her assignment, because she may catch mistakes and thereby improve at math. Or the engineer, who builds a fail-safe mechanism even though she knows it won’t fail. After all, engineers have failed before even when they were certain things would work.
Why are we so bad a humility?
It is very easy to meet any criticism or counterargument by saying, “Well, if course I could be wrong,” and pat yourself on the back for being a virtuously humble and modest person. As the quote at the start of this post says, it is much easier to avoid changing our mind and actions than to actually change your mind and actions.
And as Eliezer points out, “the greater the inconvenience of changing one’s mind, the more effort people will expend on the proof [that we don’t need to change it].”
The end result is that false humility is often much easier than true humility. It is much easier to profess your humility than to truly be humble!
How to be humble
Accept that you are fallible, that you make mistakes, that you may be wrong, and do something about it. Take actions that anticipate your own errors.
Do not boast about your modesty. Accepting your fallibility and doing nothing about it is not being humble.
Read the original article here: The Proper Use of Humility by Eliezer Yudkowsky.
For all such summaries of Less Wrong posts see the Less Wrong tag.