Intellectual Honesty - Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty, part 2/6

By Thomas Metzinger

photo by David Martin Castan

Intellectual honesty means simply not being willing to lie to oneself. It is closely related to old-fashioned values such as propriety, integrity and sincerity, to a certain form of “inner decency”. Perhaps one could say that it is a very conservative way of being truly subversive. But intellectual honesty might at the same time also be exactly what representatives of organized religions and theologians of any type simply cannot have, even if they would like to make claims to the contrary. Intellectual honesty means not pretending to know or even to be able to know the unknowable while still having an unconditional will to truth and knowledge, even where self-knowledge is involved and even where self-knowledge is not accompanied by pleasant feelings or is not in accordance with the received doctrine.

Some philosophers conceptualize intellectual honesty as a virtue, as an “intellectual virtue” concerning one’s own thoughts and inner actions, as an ethical stance towards one’s thoughts and beliefs. Again, this involves moral integrity. It means that, as often as possible, one’s actions should be in accordance with the values one has adopted as one’s own — and it concerns the question of what one should believe in the first place. Adopting a belief as one’s own is itself an inner action, and one that it is possible from which to refrain. The spontaneous appearance of a belief is one thing, the active endorsement of this belief by holding on to it another. Aside from emotional self-regulation (the ability to purposefully influence one’s emotional state) and the ability to control the focus of attention, inner self-regulation also exists with respect to what one believes. Interestingly, infants only gradually learn to control their emotional states and the focus of their attention. But the kind of critical self-regulation involved in adopting beliefs as one’s own is something that even many adults are not proficient in and never fully master. Is it possible to enhance one’s autonomy, one’s inner freedom, by practicing and improving this particular type of self-control? This is exactly what is involved in intellectual honesty. And it is interesting to note that meditation aims to increase this very same kind of mental autonomy – namely, by cultivating a specific and effortless form of inner awareness. Meditation cultivates the mental conditions of possibility for rationality. It involves the inner ability to refrain from acting, the gentle but yet precise optimization of impulse control and the gradual development of an awareness of the automatic identification mechanisms on the level of conscious thought. Thinking is not about pleasant feelings. It is about the best-possible agreement between knowledge and opinion; and it is about having only evidence-based beliefs and about cognition not serving emotional needs. Have you noticed how the last two points suggest that all of this also involves abstinence, a special form of mental asceticism? And it reveals first points of contact to the spiritual stance. The central insight, however, is that the sincere pursuit of intellectual integrity is an important special case of the pursuit of moral integrity. More about this soon.

Whoever wants to become whole—a person of integrity—by gradually resolving all conflict between their actions and values must pursue this principle with their inner actions as well. This requirement is especially true for their “epistemic actions”, their action for the sake of knowledge. We act “epistemically” whenever we strive for insight, for knowledge or true belief, for sincerity and also for authentic self-knowledge. As all meditators know, there is more than one form of inner knowledge, and inner epistemic action cannot simply be reduced to the intellect or to thought. This seems to be a first bridge between spiritual practice and the ideal of reasonable, rational thought: both involve an ethics of inner action for the sake of knowledge. Moreover, in both cases the goal is a systematic enhancement of mental autonomy. It is interesting to note that spiritual practice is much deeper, more refined and better developed in Asia than in the West. Occidental cultures, in the spirit of the enlightenment, increasingly developed and focused on the ideal of intellectual honesty.

extract 2 from Spirituality and Intellectual Honesty (see part 1 of the 6 part series)

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