Humilitas—- Part Three

In this chapter John Dickson begins to mount his case for humility being not merely a virtue but being plain common sense.  After all, no one knows everything.     Dickson then explores the concept of  competency extrapolation.   But first he tells the following joke.  Four persons are on a plane whose engines suddenly quit.  The pilot comes back from the cockpit with three parachutes and says  “There are four of us, but only 3 parachutes. I am the pilot of this plane and it’s my plane, so I must survive.”  All four agree and  he straps on the parachute and jumps.    The other three persons on the plane are a rocket scientist, a minister, and a backpacker.   The rocket scientist says “I am one of the great minds in the country and I must survive.” They all agree he straps on a pack and jumps.   The minister then says to the female backpacker, “I’ve lived a long life, and I don’t fear death. You are young and have much to live for.  You should take the last parachute.  She replies,  “Well actually it’s alright because that rocket scientist just jumped out of the plane with my backpack strapped on— we still have two chutes left!”

The point of the joke is that expertise in one area of knowledge doesn’t even guarantee common sense in another area.  Humility ought to be the out come of recognizing we all have such limitations.   Competency extrapolation is where we give ourselves permission to appear to be an expert in another area beyond our competency, just because we are an expert in something.   “Expertise could legitimately be described as uncovering the depths of my ignorance.” (p. 54).   Humility in this case is recognizing one’s limitations and resisting the tendency to engage in competency extrapolation.   This latter problem seems to especially plague those with healthy egos and large imaginations.

Let’s take for example  Sarah Palin.  Recently she was in Boston on yet another of her self-promotion tours.   She was caught on film saying that Paul Revere’s ride was about warning the British that ‘you are not taking our guns from us’.   When it was pointed out to her that this in fact was not the point at all of Revere’s ride, indeed that this was the worst sort of revisionist history,  she kept insisting she was right, and worse still,  her team tried to alter the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere to suit her account of what happened!   The Wiki folks finally had to lock the site article!!!   Not only is Palin a classic example of ego run riot (without actual expertise in anything to fuel it),  she is a good example of competency extrapolation.  Just because you are an expert at self promotion, doesn’t mean you are an expert in American history.

Dickson then refers us to a book by Gregg Elshoff brilliantly title I Told Me So. It deals with the huge human capacity for self deception, which has always been considerable since the Fall.  If one recognizes oneself in the book, and one’s ability to convince oneself that one is better than you actually are, then the next step should be seeing that a little humility can serve as an antidote.   Dickson then makes a sort of Psalm 8 argument— not only recognizing one’s own limitations, but recognizing the vastness of the universe and its complex order and harmony and beauty and scope itself ought to serve as a huge humility pill.

There is a somewhat extended argument about the non sequitur of atheism in the face of overwhelming evidence of order and purpose in creation,  but Dickson’s real concern is to say that atheism lacks the theoretical framework for the kind of humility he is talking about because humility involves both a sense of finitude (something an atheist could acknowledge)  but also a sense of inherent worth and dignity, indeed of sacred worth, distinguishing us from other life forms, something an atheist couldn’t affirm.  One can’t be in God’s image, if there is no God.  Our recognition of our limitations of knowledge, and our recognition of the size and order and complexity of the universe should keep us humble.  Humility is just common sense in light of these factors.

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