A final, more pleasurable step you can take to increase your intellectual humility comes in the form of deliberately invoking in oneself the emotion of awe. Several studies have shown that awe quietens the ego and prompts epistemological openness – that is, a greater willingness to look at things differently and to recognise the gaps in one’s knowledge. The emotion also seems to reduce people’s need to be satisfied by definite, closed arguments.
Consider a series of studies published in 2019 that involved volunteers watching awe-inspiring videos of nature or of the night skies – doing so led them to hold beliefs about capital punishment with less conviction; to see political debates as less polarised; and to be more willing to engage with others holding opposing views on immigration. Another paper published the same year, and that used nature videos and a virtual-reality experience of the aurora borealis to induce awe, found that the emotion led volunteers to be more aware of the gaps in their knowledge, and to take a keener interest in science. Paraphrasing Albert Einstein, the researchers wrote that ‘one who never experiences awe ceases to discover’. The message is simple: to increase your open-mindedness, try taking the time to gaze in wonder at the stars.
When we’re aspiring, inarticulateness isn’t a sign of unreasonableness or incapacity. In fact, the opposite may be true. “Everyone goes to college ‘to become educated,’ ” Callard observes, “but until I am educated I do not really know what an education is or why it is important.” If we couldn’t aspire to changes that we struggle to describe, we’d be trapped within the ideas that we already have. Our inability to explain our reasons is a measure of how far we wish to travel. It’s only after an aspirant has reached her destination, Callard writes, that “she will say, ‘This was why.’ ”
We say that we “decide” to get married, to have children, to live in particular cities or embark on particular careers, and in a sense this is true. But how do we actually make those choices? One of the paradoxes of life is that our big decisions are often less calculated than our small ones are. We agonize over what to stream on Netflix, then let TV shows persuade us to move to New York; buying a new laptop may involve weeks of Internet research, but the deliberations behind a life-changing breakup could consist of a few bottles of wine. We’re hardly more advanced than the ancient Persians, who, Herodotus says, made big decisions by discussing them twice: once while drunk, once while sober.