A Plea for Intellectual Humility
There is a universal human condition known as “naïve realism.” It is the tendency to believe that what we perceive is reality. Our brain prides itself on its ability to see things clearly. Our sight is reliable, isn’t it? Our ability to observe and make sense of what we perceive is remarkable. But life is far more complex than we can comprehend. There is way too much going on for our minds to be able to take it all in. We miss details – in fact, it is impossible to not miss them.
In the center of your eye there is a blind spot that cannot receive information. We are walking around with a hole in our vision but we never know it because the brain says, “No problem, I’ll just guess at what should fill in that blank.” The brain then makes up information to complete the picture. It does an amazing job of guessing correctly most of the time, and we get along fine, until someone asks us to get something for them from the cupboard!
What our brain does with our physical blind spot is exactly what it does with our metaphorical blind spots. We have huge knowledge gaps about the world around us, but the brain makes up information to complete the picture and we smugly think we see it all. Naïve realism. Not a big deal, right? It’s a system that seems to be working well. You’ve probably heard it said that the devil is in the details. I would like to argue that the devil is in the details that get missed. Our faulty perception is the devil’s playground. I believe our enemy is very eager to help fill in the blind spots with erroneous information that is designed to deceive and destroy the body of Christ.
Confirmation Bias and the Judgmental Spirit
We humans are a complex mess of emotions and motivations. We are made in the image of God, full of great potential, but we are fractured and fallen as well, capable of great evil. We are a swirling cauldron of lust, greed, and ambition, but we are also eager to serve, love, and sacrifice. We are all insecure in some way and very concerned about the opinions others have of us. Of course, we don’t want to be perceived as worrying about what other people think of us, but we all care deeply.
You can take almost any human and look only at the positive and attractive qualities and you will have a first ballot employee of the month. But put on a different filter that shows only that person’s negative qualities and you’ll wonder how the jerk ever got the job in the first place.
We think very little about most people and just accept that they are a mix of good and bad. But occasionally we are motivated to see a person with distortion glasses. When you are infatuated, all you can see are the good qualities in your love interest. How nice – but maybe wait till you can see clearly before you get committed for life. The far more common occurrence is that we put on the negative filter and grow a great distaste for the person on the other side of the lens.
There are many reasons we grow a negative lens: a wounded spirit, bitterness, pride, fear, snobbery. But whatever the reason, we get a distorted picture and we believe it is accurate! We are afflicted by confirmation bias: We see only what we want/expect to see. If you have been turned off by a church fellowship, you will only see its many flaws and weaknesses, and you will wonder how anyone can stand to keep attending. If you have been hurt by your parent, you will only see the times they failed and bemoan the unfairness of life that you were raised by such a horrible person. If you develop repulsion for an organization or movement, you will only see the potential harm it has brought and completely miss the good it has accomplished.
We like to think of ourselves as super-rational beings coolly making informed and accurate judgments about others. But the hard truth is that we make snap judgments more with our emotions and sense of taste. We make up our minds about whether or not we like something before we even have the basic facts and then we give our brains the job of looking only for the evidence that confirms our initial impression. We occasionally change our minds, but we must be overwhelmed with evidence first, and we must grow to desire the change, as well. We can be stunningly visually impaired when it comes to seeing the things that will contradict our emotionally invested opinions of others.
We see the faults of other so clearly but are blind when it comes to our own. Jesus laughed at how we can manage to see a tiny speck in our brother’s eye but don’t even notice the railroad tie in our own eye! It is for these reasons that we are strongly warned to not “speak evil against one another, brothers…There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:11-12 ESV)
We usually cannot see clearly enough to make accurate judgments, yet there is a place for making certain judgments. We are called to be discerning and to test everything (1 Thess. 5:21). We can judge people’s words if they do not line up with Scripture and we can judge people’s specific actions if they violate a clear scriptural command, but we should tremble if we are judging the person himself. We are in no position to judge hearts and motives or a person’s state of salvation. When savoring the spirit of condemnation and recounting a person’s flaws, stop and look for their strengths and giftings and praise God for the work He has done in them.
I’m right, the Bible tells me so…
We are so quick to attribute evil or selfish motives to those who disagree with us or oppose us. It is easy to see the politicians and activists on the other side of an issue as evil or selfishly motivated. But remember that, from their perspective, they are merely crusading for what they believe is right. They long for justice and fairness, too; they just see different details or interpret them differently. And if they can be so misled, how do you know that you aren’t the one who is really misled?
We are so prone to error and it is not enough to just claim that you have the Bible on your side! The Bible is the infallible inspired Word of God, but it is also long and complex. If you can miss details and distort reality in other areas, what makes you so sure you are not making the same mistakes with your interpretation of the Bible? The abundance of cults and scripture twisters should at least show how possible, if not likely, it is that we can err in our understanding of the Holy Book.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe that God has made the basic truths needed for salvation clear for those who approach the text with humility, and He also offers us the guidance of the Holy Spirit to illuminate His truth. But He does not give us a guarantee that we will always make correct interpretations. We are warned that there are scriptures that are “hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.”(2 Peter 3:16b NKJV)
Yes, you have confidence in your ability to make a correct interpretation… after all, you are a Reformed Baptist (or a spirit-filled Pentecostal, or house church independent who is un-blinded by tradition), so it is impossible to err, right? “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.” (Proverbs 26:12 NIV)
We are prone to mistakes at the best of times, but when you factor in pride, anger, or selfish ambition, it’s exponentially more likely that you will make a wrong interpretation and will cling to that error tenaciously. Because of these factors, James warns “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:19-20 NKJV) Then again in chapter 3, “if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.” (James 3:14b-16 NKJV)
Strong words! So please don’t feel justified in your self-righteous, division-causing, anger-stirring rant, just because you have a Bible verse to back it up! You may just be spewing the propaganda of demons!
The View from the Other Side…
There are so many controversies and doctrinal positions that have split the church into a thousand different pieces. Sadly, the doctrines that divide are often the ones that we are most passionate about. The goal of our studying and debating should be to know God as He really is and to proclaim his awesome truth. But when our goal is to prove our position right, truth is often the first casualty.
It’s sobering to see the results of studies on how blind “motivated reasoning” can be. When we want to believe something, all we need is a simple pseudo-scientific, semi-logical proof and then we can stop thinking about it. When we want to reject an idea, we only need an argument that provides a plausible hint that the idea could be wrong and then we are justified in rejecting it. Thanks to Google, we can find any information, real or fabricated, to support or refute just about anything. This means we can believe whatever we want and never have to be wrong! Once we find the proof we want and reject the evidence that doesn’t fit our position, the conclusion becomes “obvious” and we can’t figure out how everyone else can be so blind and stupid!
We would all benefit from learning to see things from our opponents’ perspective and try to take their arguments seriously. When we do that, we make it more likely that we might have to change our mind. (Horrors!) But it’s also more likely that we will arrive at the truth of the matter. Cute, catchy sound bites, or clever memes cartooning the other side’s views may make you feel wise and righteous but they only shut your brain off to the realization that there is always room to examine an issue more deeply. Unfortunately, studies have shown that more education or a higher IQ does not give a person a greater ability to see the flip side or the counter arguments; it just gives a person the ability to come up with better arguments for his own position, making him more entrenched.
Next time you read an article or a meme, ask “what is another way to look at this? Is there a balancing counter argument? How would someone who believes in the issue being attacked respond? Would it make him stop and think, or only anger him and make him dig his heels in further?” We want to influence people, not belittle or disgust them! Where ever you stand on secondary issues, find someone who disagrees with you and try to learn their position and understand their reasons and evidence.
People, put away the swords and knives and tremble before your God! “For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7b NKJV) We have a tendency to get it wrong, to see a distorted picture, but at the same time to be fervently convinced of our own rightness. A dangerous combination and a recipe for disaster, a concoction that is splattered on nearly every page of our history books.
Conviction does not mean intellectual arrogance. And a willingness to yield or carefully consider the other side does not make you weak or wishy-washy. Satan convinces us that to admit we could be wrong is to dishonor God or his Holy Word. But look again at how James describes a truly biblical attitude: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:17-18 NKJV emphasis mine) When you feel the need to defend yourself or your position or group, your motivated reasoning could blind you to the areas where you are deceived. You think you are fighting for God’s honor, but your dogmatic errors are doing Him a greater dishonor.
At judgment day, all will be revealed. It is not our responsibility make everybody see things the way we do. At the center of reality is a gracious and loving Heavenly Father, who knows we are but dust and smiles gently at our human error. Far more important than “being right” is seeing God as He really is, in all His beautiful glory. But often the quest to prove our righteousness blinds our eyes to this beauty and leaves us mired in deception. Lay down your right to be right and in humility ask God to lead you. Don’t rely on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Make a habit of asking God, “What details am I missing? What is another way to interpret this issue?” Be quick to hear and slow to speak. When you are busy formulating your defense, how can you ever really understand your opponents’ perspective? He may be right and you can learn from him. But at the very least, your willingness to hear will make him more receptive to your message. And if you are carrying God’s message of Life, that is a very good thing.
I want to make clear that I am not saying that truth cannot be found or that the search for absolute knowledge is futile. To claim that we cannot know something for certain, is to claim to know something for certain and is self-refuting. It seems to me that we were gifted by a Creator with a desire for knowledge and also given tools of reason, along with our senses, to aid us in this endeavor. If our minds are the gifts of a good and kind intelligence, we have far more reason to trust our minds, than if they are simply the result of an undirected chemical explosion. Any thought that is chemically induced, either by drugs or medication, is not to be trusted, but if the theory of atheistic evolution is correct, then all of our thoughts are reduced to mere chemical reactions. The search for truth becomes meaningless, because it no longer matters if a thought is true, only if it is beneficial.
But consider the possibility that our minds are the product of an Ultimate Intelligence, and that He desires that we seek the truth. Then it would follow that not only could we trust our minds to a certain extent, we could also petition Him to guide our minds into truth. It would also open up the possibility that He could communicate truth to us.
My point in this article was to show us the many ways we blind ourselves to the truth, the ways our egos and emotions end up deceiving us. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” I believe that any quest for truth cannot hope to be successful until we acknowledge how prone to errors our minds are on their own. We have such a limited perspective and far too many gaps in our knowledge. If we are honest, there are very few things we could claim certainty about apart from some kind of divine revelation. The surest path to certain knowledge would be a reliable communication from the Ultimate Mind. I believe the Bible has all the ear marks of such a communication and has proven to be reliably transmitted to us through history.
Because I believe our minds are the product of a good and honest Creator, I believe that we can be optimistic in our search for truth. The Bible promises that if we sincerely seek and trust His guidance we will find truth. (See Proverbs 8:17, James 1:5, Luke 11:9, Jeremiah 29:13) But because I also see how easy it is to err and the many ways I am deceived, I see how important it is to have an attitude of humility. I believe that few things are as blinding as pride and arrogance. The attitude that admits it could be wrong and acknowledges its need for divine assistance is the one that is most likely to discover the truth. If we want God to guide us into truth, then we also have a moral imperative to respond to the light that He gives us. If we refuse to believe a truth on emotional grounds, or simply because we don’t like it, we can’t expect Him to keep enlightening us.
I know the atheist and the skeptic will scoff at this reliance on divine guidance, but I don’t think what they are relying on is any stronger. If you remove the hope of divine guidance and depend solely on limited human reason, the quest for truth will end in nihilism and empty relativism. I admit I could be wrong, but God’s word is the surest foundation that I have found. Until you can show me something better, “here I stand, I can do no other.”
Paul Lackey • June 10, 2014
An excellent article and needful reminder to us all Jesse!
Jamie • June 25, 2014
Speaking the Truth in love….very important. Truth being the prominent object, love the vehicle. My one question would be, if in doctrinal issues other than the gospel, we are to see ourselves as fallible, and be open to the idea that our friend, with whom we may disagree, may be correct…. to be consistent, shouldn’t we also use that same principle in our understanding of the gospel itself? ” Perhaps our atheist friend is correct? Maybe I am wrong and need to change my opinion?” LOTS of good thoughts in your blog that we can all benefit from, but I am confused at how you differentiate our ability to discern some Truth from other Truth. (i.e. – we can wholly trust our view of what the gospel is, but distrust our understanding of say…Grace and Works, male and female roles, end times, etc., etc.) Shouldn’t our fallibility drive us to 2 Tim 2:15..study, study, study, accurately handling the Word of Truth. And speak the truth in love as accurately as we know how. Not to be ‘right’, but simple because God has graciously given us His Truth. Lots of it. And yes, another believer may have more Scriptural knowledge than we do, which should be humbly considered. Polemics used to be a core seminary subject, but has been routed out by the PC police. Just don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Jesse Jost • June 26, 2014
Jamie, thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I have been wrestling with this issue since I posted this and I have written a postscript to clarify my position. God bless!
jamie • June 26, 2014
Great postscript. You are a good thinker and writer. I look forward to reading your blog.