On Humility and Arrogance

This article was originally published on Medium.

The consciousness of the human psyche implies a network of knowledge — meaningful and systematized information — which along with biological predispositions guide our behavior and work as filters for new information. The stability of this network is determined by its foundation (axioms) and structure. A weak foundation with false or misleading premises sets the network up to be unstable as simple observations or arguments could call the axioms into question which could cause the whole network to collapse. If man were perfectly rational, he would reject the false premises and establish a new foundation if he found his standpoint to be dispelled, but with most people this is not the case. What he instead does is set up a shield around his network of knowledge, or a wall with a door that only opens for information that confirms the viewpoint he already holds. Confirmation bias — as it is commonly called — and such biases and fallacies are the bricks which constitutes that wall.

There are many ways in which this wall can play out in the individual’s conduct, but the clearest case is that of arrogance. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, arrogance can be defined as “an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.” In other words, one doesn’t feel the need to listen to what others may say, as one sees oneself as superior to them. “They don’t know what I know,” the arrogant says. “If they did, they would be on my side.” Conveying such appraised information to them, however, he may not feel inclined to do in the least. When trying to do so, however, the arrogant reacts to criticism against his ideas as an attack against him, for it is as if a sword has hit his shield, and that he feels he must respond in self-defense. For if that sword were to break his shield, the identity — the knowledge network — of the arrogant would collapse, and his ideological journey would have to start anew. He thus reacts aggressively, with personal attacks — ad hominems — and other fallacies such as ad hoc, usually not without any proper arguments, though he may bring up some decent points depending on his knowledge.

Truth is not the goal of the arrogant. For the arrogant, all he says is the truth, and all those who critique his ideas are either dishonest or misinformed. The solipsistic shield of the psyche of the arrogant serves his convenience. If the arrogant thinks everyone else is dishonest or misinformed, he may think himself to be the chosen one to guide them into the light — not through persuasion, but through authoritarianism.

Though many would find it unnecessary to try to formulate arguments against the solipsism of the arrogant, as it is thought of as intuitively bad, one could still benefit from such a formulation if one seeks ethical lessons of what not to be done and its alternatives. There are two ways to tackle this:

  1. The arrogant bases his life on lies. As one only gets one lifetime, one ought to make the most out of it (see my article The Root of the Stoic Philosophy: Opportunity Cost). What will come out of the life of the arrogant? His decisions will constantly lead him astray as they’ll tend to be based on the same false basis.
  2. The arrogant withers his environment. Not only does he fool himself and make terrible life decisions — he also impacts the people he interacts with. With the case of his supporters, they will be fooled by him in the same way he fools himself, and may continue spreading that foolishness to others, which will continue to spread it, etc. With the case of the people who criticize him, however, they will be berated and mocked, and if the arrogant has a large enough following and enough power, the criticizers may see their career in jeopardy and face false accusations of illegal conduct. This is how the arrogant starts a forest fire by setting himself on fire and rolling on the ground. It starts with mistakes in his neural network, and ends up in disaster for his social network.

Hence it is established that such a mindset is damaging both to oneself and others, and ought to be avoided if one wishes the best for either of them.

Most people will react to this and say that they’d never want to be such a person, but this matter isn’t black and white. In reality, it’s not “arrogant” and “not arrogant”, but rather the degree of arrogance one has. When challenged on a stance quite fundamental to your worldview, how do you react? What does your impulses tell you? Based on your biology, your impulses may be more or less aggressive (or one might react in the opposite way — passively and with a sense of anxiety — which is the case with those with an unstable network without such a shield), but you can control your impulses if you’re willing. Are you willing, to control your impulses and to try to be as rational a person as you can be. To actually make something out of yourself—to live the best life you can, and build up a proper, lasting legacy? What does it take? Only you can tell, but the first step is building up a stable knowledge network and practicing humility.

The antidote — and antithesis — of arrogance is humility. “All I know is that I know nothing,” said Socrates. What did he mean by that? It appears to me that he was addressing the problem with saying one “knows” something. If I say I know something, I declare it definitive that something is true. However, if I say I “know” something false doesn’t make it true. It only serves as a convenience so I can continue to think of myself as rational instead of saying that I “believe” something, which sounds less based on empiricism and more on speculation than if I said that I “knew” it. What Socrates pointed out here is that our knowledge is extremely limited, and that some data points out there may dispute what one “knows”. He could then utter what seemed like a contradiction, that all he knew was that he knew nothing. That was the only thing out from his limited knowledge which he could truly say to have known for certain in that sense.

How Socrates used this perspective in practice has come to be called the Socratic method. The Foundation of Critical Thinking writes the following about the method,

By following up all answers with further questions, and by selecting questions which advance the discussion, the Socratic questioner forces the class to think in a disciplined, intellectually responsible manner, while yet continually aiding the students by posing facilitating questions.

A Socratic questioner should:
a) keep the discussion focused
b) keep the discussion intellectually responsible
c) stimulate the discussion with probing questions
d) periodically summarize what has and what has not been dealt with and/or resolved
e) draw as many students as possible into the discussion.

Here it is shown how it can be used in a class environment, but it can really be used anywhere. The Socratic method is the alternative to the shield of arrogance. Instead of blocking out other viewpoints and only trying to confirm one’s own, one does the opposite by trying to understand the points from alternative perspectives, what they get wrong and what they get right, and also analyzing one’s own perspective, and building up a stable network of knowledge which has no need for a shield to protect it from falling apart. Real humility is admitting when and how one is wrong, and the Socratic method is the way to practice humility every day, with the goals to pursue the truth, build a stable and extensive knowledge network, and make life better for oneself and others.

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