As ambassadors for Christ, we need knowledge, wisdom, and character in our conversations, but what should we do when we don’t know the answer to a skeptic’s question? Greg explains why sometimes it’s all right to say, “I don’t know.”
Being an ambassador is an important part of what we’re training other people to do. We don’t want to just give info; we want to produce a certain type of person called an ambassador, and, as we characterize this—and many of you already know this—ambassadors have three areas of skill, and that would be knowledge, wisdom, and character, is the way we put it. You’ve got to know a few things if you’re going to be a good ambassador. Even in foreign affairs, you have to have a tactical skill to maneuver with wisdom in conversations if you’re going to apply your trade, and you also have to have a character that commands the message and doesn’t detract from it. Now, as I develop this idea of character in my talks, and also on the Stand to Reason University course that I teach on this, I mention different ways to make our message more palatable and for us to be more amicable in our engagements with people when we disagree, and I mention a couple of things that it’s important to be able to say to other people that can soften the atmosphere in an appropriate fashion. One of the things I tell people is, be ready to acknowledge that you could be mistaken about some things.
It’s not a rhetorical trick. It’s an expression of appropriate epistemic humility. We are humble about the limitations of our own knowledge, and we are aware that that we can have a confirmation bias. We could be looking for things to confirm our own view and not see the facts for the way they really are, if they are contrary to our view. This is just my attempt at encouraging Christians to be careful and be willing to admit to other people that, in some circumstances, they might be mistaken about something.
Now, this does not mean that you are mistaken or that you think you are mistaken. It just means that you’re acknowledging that it’s possible you could be, and, by saying that, it really softens things a lot, I think. And I think it’s an expression of personal integrity. Why would I say that I could be mistaken? Because I have been mistaken. I actually have been. Well, I mean, once or twice, and my wife will tell you, and my kids will tell you, yeah, Greg’s been mistaken. So, I know that I’ve been mistaken, and I pretty much know that I still am mistaken, at the moment, on things that I already believe. Now, wait. You mean you think you believe things that are wrong? Of course I do. But why don’t you change those things? Well, because I don’t know what it is that I’m wrong on, but I can’t be the only guy on the planet who’s got everything right.
So, I’m willing to say, to a detractor, well, here’s my view. I could be mistaken on this, but here are the reasons why I hold the view that I hold. Now, could I be mistaken on, well, just about everything? I mean, there’s a couple of things, some things, that I can’t say that with integrity, but the point I’m making is that, with most of the things we believe, it certainly is possible that we could be mistaken on them. The objection that gets raised to me if I say, “Well, I could be wrong,” is that it seems like it might cast doubt on my conviction, that I’m not communicating with confidence. Nobody has ever accused me of not communicating with confidence, with being equivocal about the points that I’m making, unless I am genuinely equivocal and acknowledge it—well, it could be this; it could be that. I don’t know. I’m kind of going here, but I could be mistaken. Maybe it’s this. But even in the things that I have strong justification for, even in those, it is possible I could be mistaken.
I want to cling to my convictions with the vigor and intensity that my justification allows for. So, there are things I’m going to hang on real tightly to, and I’m not going to let go, because I have really, really good justification—reasons—for them. And other things, well, you know, maybe not so strong, I think I’m right, and here are the reasons, but I could be mistaken.
Now, I think that when we have this, when we demonstrate a certain kind of epistemic humility—that’s a humility about what we think we know—it actually softens the conversation, and, I think, makes our views more palatable to others because we are not coming across with a kind of unmitigated dogmatism: “I’m right. I’m writing everything I believe. You’re wrong. You’re wrong in every way you disagree with me. It’s my way or the highway.” I mean, that’s not a very persuasive atmosphere to be engaged in.
If we don’t think we could be mistaken, then we’re not going to be alert about possibly being mistaken, which means we’re not going to know it when we are mistaken. If you have an unshakable belief in something that is false, then you have an unshakable delusion, and there are a whole lot of people who have an unshakable delusion.