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6 Questions That Will Keep You Intellectually Honest

It’s easy to feel confident in what we think we know. It’s easy to latch on to the sensation that we’ve already arrived in our pursuit of truth. It’s easy to buy into the illusion that we’re one of the rare few chosen ones who understand what’s really going on while everyone else is guilty of blatant idiocy. It’s easy to assume that we have far more to teach than we have to learn. It’s easy to draw hard lines of distinction between teacher and student while forgetting that every good teacher needs to play the role of student and every good student needs to play the role of teacher.

There’s no easy formula for maintaining open-mindedness and intellectual honesty, but here’s a list of questions I’ve come up with as an exercise in keeping myself honest.

Question #1: Can you name one person, dead or alive, who you regard as a brilliant thinker responsible for having contributed important and insightful work to the pool of human knowledge?

How this question can keep you honest:

The inability to identify other brilliant people might be an indicator that you’re out of touch with reality or just flat out arrogant. On a planet that includes several billion people (if we’re only counting the living ones), it should be relatively easy to identify one person who meets this criteria even if you believe 90% off all people are total idiots. Difficulty with answering this question might mean you have a hard time recognizing or respecting anyone else’s intelligence besides your own or you’re not very active in the process of seeking exposure to new people and new perspectives

Question #2: Can you name one person, dead or alive, that you disagree with whose philosophy is right and respectable in at least one area?

How this question can keep you honest:

It can be awfully hard for many of us to admit when another person is right about something if they don’t share our cherished beliefs about religion, or politics, or money, or some other important issue. Learning how to learn from people who don’t agree with us about everything is essential for survival and personal growth. The inability to give credit to people merely because of objectionable content in other aspects of their worldview can easily lead to a form of group-think and close-mindedness that blinds us from the common ground we share with others. It can also lead to an unnecessarily adversarial attitude towards people who don’t share our views. This makes us less effective as communicators and less coherent as thinkers.

Question: #3: Can you name a few important questions that you don’t believe you have discovered the answers to yet?

How this question can keep you honest:

If you literally don’t have any important questions that you lack the answer to, then that means you have nothing to learn. Believing that you have nothing important to learn is a huge incentive killer when it comes to connecting with other people and devoting yourself to personal growth. More importantly, if you don’t think you lack answers to any important questions, it might be an indicator that you have a very narrow concept of important, or a very limited understanding of the kinds of questions being asked in our time, or a very limited sense of possibility regarding the kinds of things that can be known about yourself and your world.

Question #4: Can you name 1-2 issues, topics, or areas of study that you feel you still need to learn about?

How this question can keep you honest:

Most of us are aware of the fact that we don’t know everything. It’s easy, however, to casually dismiss the stuff we don’t know as being minor or unimportant. “I don’t know EVERYTHING, but I know all about the stuff that matters” is the attitude I’m referring to here. This question challenges you to think about what you don’t know in terms of your own goals. The inability to answer this question might reveal that you’re not being very specific with your goals, or that you’re not willing to challenge yourself, or that you have a hard time admitting when you’re uninformed about important things.

Question #5: If you had to guess, could you name one 1-2 issues, topics, or areas of study where you’re most likely to hold a false assumption or uninformed belief?

How this question can keep you honest:

This question challenges you to be aware of your cognitive biases, your psychological motives, and your personal agendas. The goal of this question is to help you practice the art of being conscious of how your individual thinking style, tendencies, and self-interests can affect your pursuit of truth. By being aware of these things, you can improve your ability to be less negatively affected by them.

Questions #6: Can you name at least one specific instance in which you openly admitted to another person that you were wrong about something?

How this question can keep you honest:

None of us have been right about every single thing since birth. While it’s easy to admit that we’re all wrong in general, it’s healthy to practice remembering particular moments when we owned our errors. This can help in at least two ways: 1) It can help de-dramatize the experience of being wrong. By recounting our past errors in light of our current state of being more informed, we reinforce the view that it’s not a big deal to admit when you’re wrong. Although many people enjoy mocking those who confess their errors, we should actually celebrate intellectually honesty. By being very familiar with our own experiences of exhibiting such behavior, we take a positive step in the direction of seeing the admission of error as a positive and praise-worthy thing. 2) The more difficulty we have with remembering specific times when we owned our errors, the more likely it is that we either have trouble admitting when we’re wrong or that we have trouble accepting the fact that we’ve had to do so. Being aware of that aspect of ourselves is the first step to making improvements.

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