Humility (in the sense of knowledge) is the understanding that there are many things one does not know or cannot know. It is the opposite of arrogance, the attitude that one already knows something, when in fact he doesn’t.

Admitting ignorance

Humility includes the willingness (and sometimes the courage) to admit ignorance and say “I don’t know”.

Asking is the only way we can learn new things. If we’re too shy to ask, how would we learn?

One may feel embarrassed to admit one’s ignorance. The worry may be that people may look down at someone or think he’s dumb or not well educated if he asks a question which reveals that he doesn’t know something. This attitude may stem from one’s childhood, were parents and teachers were fixated on the outcome rather than on a growth mindset, and praised children with high grades and scolded children with low grades – this causes children to lie and pretend they know something in order to get affection from adults, or to get stressed and depressed when they don’t know. People who attempt to hide their ignorance are acting out of lack of self-confidence.

Among adults, it turns out that decent people don’t judge others so harshly. And even if there are some who are judgmental towards others – it doesn’t matter, we don’t have to care about what they think (their judgmental attitude probably indicates they feel insecure and are trying to hide it by making themselves appear as smarter than others).

One can also discover that there are other people who are afraid to ask questions, and when one takes the initiative and asks questions and gets answers, this helps other people as well, and they are thankful that someone asked the questions they were afraid to ask.

Admitting a mistake

Humility includes the willingness to admit that we made a mistake about something (and also that we did something wrong which hurt someone). This, too, people find hard to do, because our ego is afraid that we’ll be perceived by others as stupid. This fear may cause them to stick to wrong knowledge, and even really start believing it is true, which can lead them to harmful actions. So we need to learn there’s nothing shameful about making mistakes – everyone does it and that’s the only way to learn. Admitting our mistakes is the right thing to do, both for our sake and for others.

Being careful about conclusions

Humility includes the willingness to remain with uncertainty or a lack of knowledge as long as one cannot know something for sure. It is the opposite of the tendency we all have to quickly jump to conclusions, and reach wrong conclusions based on insufficient evidence or reasoning.

The tendency to quickly reach premature conclusions perhaps developed when we evolved in the wild, as it was necessary for our physical survival. When walking in the jungle, full of dangerous animals that can bite you or eat you, one does not have time to stop and carefully examine the source of a noise before concluding that danger is lurking around the corner. One must quickly conclude there is danger and run away – or possibly be eaten. But today, this tendency can harm us, e.g. when we conclude, based merely on anecdotal evidence, that some “alternative medicine” potion purported to heal us really works, or based merely on gossip that someone is against us.

It is difficult for us to live with uncertainty, but that’s a very useful skill that we can and ought to learn, as life is full of uncertainty, and knowing how to acknowledge it and handle it can improve our lives.

Keeping an open mind

Even when it seems to us we do know something for certain, it is a good idea to nonetheless remain humble, keep an open mind, and be willing to re-examine the evidence, the argumentations, our conclusions, opinions, beliefs, values, and ideology. It is always the case we might discover that what we thought was true is in fact wrong or at least inaccurate. Whoever closes himself to this possibility in fact closes himself to truth and to the ability to discover new, interesting and useful knowledge.

Limits of knowledge

There are certain things that in principle we cannot know now, or we may never be able to know.

For example, every person has a “blind spot” – things he cannot see by himself, and only others can see it and point it out to him, such as the influence he has on others, or how he looks when he’s giving a lecture. A wise person understands that and initiates asking others about the stuff he cannot know by himself.

We are finite beings with a limited brain living in a gigantic universe the size of which we cannot possibly begin to fathom, and which is enormously complex and intricate. There are things about our reality we may never be able to grasp.

See also

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