Why Every Christian Must Practice Epistemic Humility

by Max Andrews

There are three primary categories for virtue the Christian/theist will affirm.  The first are the transcendental virtues: truth, beauty, and goodness. The second set is the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love/charity.  Then there are the four cardinal virtues: prudence, courage, patience, and justice.  It’s my belief that every Christian must practice epistemic humility.  What is that?  Well, epistemic humility, in the sense I’ll be using it, refers to an application of the four cardinal virtues in the area of epistemology (knowledge).  Each of these virtues have a respective vice.  For instance, the virtue of moderation would appear as a vice in addiction.

The virtue of epistemic prudence is know when and how to appropriate your knowledge to others.  Have you ever noticed that person in class or in church that seems to be the ‘know-it-all,’ whether they actually are or not?  Of course, it’s worse when they’re simply ignorant of what they’re talking about, but not only is this person annoying but there may be several issues rooted in the flaunting of knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with sharing you’re knowledge but, like I said, it’s how and when you share it.  This isn’t always the case but there may be underlying reasons for why someone doesn’t practice epistemic prudence.  Perhaps, the person really is ignorant and feels like he needs to compensate.  This person will usually drag out the same point over and over and sometimes doesn’t really present a coherent verbiage of what he’s trying to say.  Secondly, it may be the case that the person does know what he’s talking about but presents it in a boastful manner.  This person may appear very proud.  To avoid such a vice the Christian should be prudent.  If you don’t know what you’re talking about or if you’re ignorant of something that’s okay!  Being teachable is very important and knowing your capabilities is good.  The epistemically prudent person will present and share his knowledge in an understandable way and will share it on the level of the intended audience/listener.

Epistemic courage is willing and desiring to learn new material.  I know it’s a very daunting task to try to learn something, especially for the first time.  In my current research I’ve discovered that I need to go back and re-learn some of my science and teach myself new sciences and mathematics.  My current task is learning and becoming proficient in theological German, which is a condition for my current degree.  I admit, there are times when I really just don’t want to learn this stuff.  It’s okay to feel overwhelmed at times–it’s natural.  Someone who doesn’t feel overwhelmed at times isn’t doing enough. The task and virtue here is to be willing and having that longing desire to learn more.  Learning never stops and knowledge is so important to every aspect of life and God.  What’s the chief end of man? According to the Westminster confession it is to know God and glorify him.  There’s so much that is loaded into that role of knowing God. Discover it.  The corresponding vice would be the unwillingness and lack of desire to learn.  It’s being stubborn and rejecting knowledge–being content with ignorance.

The virtue of epistemic patience dovetails epistemic courage.  The epistemically patient person will understand that learning is a process.  Sometimes this process is painful.  Not all knowledge is an academic knowledge. Knowledge isn’t merely book knowledge or memorizing facts or reasoning skills.  Knowledge is also religious/moral and experiential.  The Christian discovers moral truth; it’s not invented.  This comes in time and can be painful.  Like the experiential knowledge of being in a marriage or having a surgery, moral knowledge can be painful (I’m not saying marriage is painful… don’t read into that!).  Sometimes we have to feel the pain of loss or personal sufferings to really know love or to value something or someone.  In the words of the professor in Good Will Hunting, Sean, played by Robin Williams, “True loss only comes when you love something more than you love yourself.”

Finally, epistemic justice is giving credit where credit is due.  The respective vice would be intellectual piracy.  This epistemically just or fair person will be able to recognize truth in other people’s work.  You don’t always have to be right.  Be willing to be corrected and note the truth shared by others.  Don’t be envious of others’ work and knowledge as well and don’t falsely accuse someone of stealing your ideas.  Share knowledge and allow for others to share as well.

As I said above, the Christian practices these virtues in their epistemology.  The general virtue is being humble and the general vice would to incorrigible.  There may be many reasons why someone has the vice of being incorrigible (or incorrectable), which may be stubbornness, pride, or a lack of desire to learn.  The Christian should learn to love to learn and want to learn.  After all, we will spend an eternity learning more about God.  Why not practice these virtues now and use the gift of mind to honor him?

4 Responses to “Why Every Christian Must Practice Epistemic Humility”

  1. I am most grateful for the humble and powerful truths highlighted in your artlcle. It’s power, I believe, comes from the fact that the way in which you wrote it modeled the truths that you so eloquently expressed. Thank you.

  2. I second what Joanne said in the first comment. You have given me top-notch quality food for thought. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and for the humble and simple way in which you expressed it.

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