Sun | Sep 20, 2020

Michael Abrahams | Intellectual humility; a human virtue

Published:Monday | October 8, 2018 | 12:00 AM

There is an ancient parable about six blind men and an elephant that originated in the Indian subcontinent. The earliest versions are found in Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts, and have different variations, but it basically goes as follows.

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, and went to investigate the creature. Being blind, they carried out their inspection by touching the pachyderm. The first man felt the trunk and declared, “The elephant is like a thick snake.” The second felt one of its ears and confidently stated, “The elephant is like a kind of fan.”

The third felt one of its legs and announced, “The elephant is like a tree trunk.” The fourth man felt the animal’s side and said, “The elephant is a wall.” The fifth man felt the tail and concluded, “The elephant is a rope.” The sixth man felt one of the elephant’s hard, smooth tusks and expressed the view that “the elephant is a spear”.

In some versions of the story, the blind men discover their disagreements, suspect the others to be lying, and come to blows. In some versions, they stop talking, listen to one another and finally "see" the full elephant. In another, a sighted man engages the blind men and describes the entire elephant from various perspectives, causing them to learn that they were all partially correct - and partially wrong.

This is one of my favourite parables and illustrates the value of intellectual humility. But what is intellectual humility? Simply put, it is recognising the limits of your knowledge and appreciating the intellectual strengths of others, and in doing so, acknowledging that you may be wrong about what you believe.

The concept of intellectual humility is a very significant one, and its importance cannot be overstated. We should all be aware that what we often posit as facts are really perspectives, and that our perspectives are influenced by our socialisation, by what we have been taught by our parents, caregivers, teachers, lecturers, professors and clergy, by what we read in books, including textbooks and religious texts, and by what we see and hear in traditional and social media.

But there is a common thread in all the above-mentioned sources of information; they emanate from human beings. And human beings are flawed. Every. Single. One. Of. Us. From the most distinguished professors and so-called holy men who claim to be inspired by God, to the illiterate as well as the idle. We are imperfect beings. We make mistakes. We forget. We have accidents. We are prone to errors of judgement. We have biases. We lie. It is important to understand and appreciate that while your subjective experience may be true, it may not be the totality of truth.

As humans, we are influenced by false beliefs, misconceptions, prejudices, illusions, myths, propaganda and ignorance. We tend to overestimate how much we know, resulting in us clinging stubbornly to our sometimes misguided beliefs, while tuning out and dismissing opinions that run counter to ours.

If we are honest, we will acknowledge the fact that many great men and women, and societies, have been flawed in their views and pronouncements on several topics, including health and human behaviour, leading to risks being taken with the well-being and lives of others and travesties of justice.

It is important to acknowledge the importance of intellectual humility. Without it, justice, peace, harmony and progress will evade us. Intellectual arrogance is incompatible with fairness because our ability to judge fairly will be hampered by our ignorance of the object of our judgement. For example, if you are ignorant about a belief system, but are so entrenched in your own beliefs, your assessment of that system may be somewhat warped and unfair. You may dismiss the belief, when, in fact, if you dispassionately investigate it, you may find its tenets to be more rational, logical, credible, reasonable, fair and appealing than the belief system you have upheld as the ‘truth’ for decades.

Intellectual humility is also essential to higher-level thinking. It not only helps us to be fair, but also facilitates our own learning. The more we open our minds and listen to others, the more likely we are to acquire information that will assist with our enlightenment, development and maturity. Intellectual humility is, therefore, a valuable tool in our quest for knowledge, understanding and wisdom.

No matter how strongly we feel about an issue, or how well educated we are, we should all be humble enough to understand that there are usually other perspectives to consider. Realise that whoever you meet will know something that you do not, and that you could learn something from that person.

The benefits of discussing issues with people whose views differ from yours are immense. No matter what you believe, understand and appreciate the value of well-conducted and unbiased research. Do not be quick to dismiss something simply because it conflicts with your world view. Remember that your teachers, like you, are human and imperfect, and that fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.

And always consider the fact that you could be wrong.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.