The HPedia: Hubris

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The term hubris indicates over-reaching.  Modern usage points to overweaning pride or arrogance, often with a corresponding blindness to one’s own limitations:

excessive pride or self-confidence (Oxford Dictionaries Online)

The word comes from the ancient Greek term for irreverent, outrageous treatment:

In ancient Greek, hubris (Ancient Greek ὕβρις) referred to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser. … The word was also used to describe actions of those who challenged the gods or their laws, especially in Greek tragedy, resulting in the protagonist’s fall.  (Wikipedia)

Note that ancient usage does not specify pride or arrogance, but refers rather to humiliating another for one’s own pleasure.

In a modern scientific context, hubris might take the form of drawing conclusions beyond what is warranted by the evidence, or taking provisional conclusions as true in an absolute sense.  This kind of hubris aligns with what is often called scientism (see “Scientism”).  Another form might be ignorance or dismissal of one’s own biases in perception.  Yet another form might be treating those with whom we disagree with disrespect or contempt.

No less a scientist than James Lovelock, who recently admitted some of his more dire climate change predictions were “alarmist”, exemplifies the kind of scientific integrity that avoids hubris.  He tells The Guardian:

One thing being a scientist has taught me is that you can never be certain about anything. You never know the truth. You can only approach it and hope you get a bit nearer to it each time. You iterate towards the truth. You don’t know it.

In contrast to hubris, we can adopt what DT Strain calls a “humble approach to knowledge.”  He considers this among the top ten signs of good spirituality:

A good spirituality will engender humility in the practitioner when it comes to beliefs. It will produce a practitioner that is careful about making claims that cannot be substantiated. The practitioner will appreciate their limitations as a human being, not assuming they have more ability to ‘know’ things than they do. They would learn to be comfortable with a state of ‘not knowing’ all things. Such an approach will guide the practitioner in their own assumptions, as well as in accepting the claims of others without good reason. A good spiritual path will encourage doubt, asking questions, etc. It will not encourage the practitioner to accept claims on the basis of authority, or tradition, or faith, or any other means than good sense and self experience. But at the same time, this principle will not be one that encourages the practitioner to spend their time telling others what they should or shouldn’t believe. Rather, its focus will be on helping the practitioner in their own walk.

Another way to approach the matter would be mindfulness not only of science’s power to explain things, but also to unexplain them, i.e. to reveal how much we do not (yet) know.

M. Jay Lee describes hubris:

Hubris is committed when one fails to remember the limitations of being human. We humans will never have perfect knowledge, nor can we ever be completely sure that our judgments are not clouded by our own, often unconscious, desires and needs. Hubris is often associated with violent and extreme actions. One doesn’t need a crystal ball to know that when humans become arrogant and start acting as if they were gods that things will end badly. In the poetic convention of mythology, it is often one god or another who is portrayed as punishing hubris, but in my opinion it is really just the way of life itself, in the end life catches up. No one can be lucky all the time. To set oneself up too highly, is to set oneself up for a great fall.

See also “Scientism.”

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