Principles: Intellectual Integrity

“What do you mean by ‘intellectual integrity?'” Leave it to Mrs. Jacobs to pin me down. It was another one of those Friday evenings at the home of my partner’s parents. David and I had driven three hours to our hometown to attend a baby dedication. Now we were lounging in the Jacob’s living room and in the course of the conversation I dropped one of my favorite phrases, ‘intellectual integrity.’ The short answer to Mrs. Jacobs’ question is that intellectual integrity means I employ certain tests to determine the credibility of an idea, and when ideas do not pass these credibility tests I am ethically bound to reject them. This is similar to the answer I slapped together for my mother-in-law. However, since I claim to esteem intellectual integrity as one of my core values I thought I owed it to myself to flesh out my meaning when I had the time. I began this process by writing out word clouds.

First there is ‘intellectual,’ the adjective form of ‘intellect’:

Intellect Word Cloud

Then ‘integrity,’ a word with several meanings of its own:

Integrity Word Cloud

When I choose which meanings I intend for each word, and then combine them, the result is the following definition:

Intellectual integrity is internal consistency in the application of critical reasoning and logic. 

The next phrase begging for clarification is ‘critical reasoning.’ On a technical level, critical reasoning is about recognizing if a statement is entirely true, partially false, or completely false. I value critical reasoning because it enables us to recognize complexity and suss out the nuance within an idea. It facilitates the suspension judgment and requires the ability to hold ideas in tension—a sort of mental holding room in which ideas are examined before their components are accepted, rejected, or simply stored as tools for future use. Critical reasoning also enables us to fully comprehend ideas and how they may be perceived from various perspectives, making cognitive empathy possible.

Having defined ‘critical reasoning’, the definition of Intellectual integrity becomes even clearer: Internal consistency in the application of logic and the evaluation of conceptual nuance.

People are complex, and as a result so is everything we touch. If we’re going to understand anything, from the scourge of generational poverty, to systemic racism, to the gears of local and national politics, we need to assess it with as much consistency as we can muster. It may not be possible to evaluate human issues with complete objectivity, but if we are consistent in our evaluation we have the opportunity to recognize and communicatively compensate for our differences in perspective.

I left the church for it.

My intellectual integrity has always been very important to me. It is even more important to me now, considering what I’ve given up for it. Ultimately my religion and intellectual integrity came at loggerheads whenever the former appeared to require the suspension of the latter. For example, I was asked to believe that the earth, and its flora and fauna, were created by god in seven days. To maintain my intellectual integrity I had to evaluate this claim the same way I evaluate all claims about nature: through the lens of modern science. Modern science is responsible for everything from the moon landing, to the inner workings of the laptop I’m typing on. I trust the scientific method primarily because of its built-in course correction and predictive power. Reputable scientists have reached consensus on the approximate age of the earth, and how its numerous species developed. The theories (defined as “a coherent group of tested general proportions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles for explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena”) put forth by modern science contradict the biblical account of creation. To maintain my intellectual integrity I have to reject the story of creation.

There were many issues about which I felt forced to disagree with the church once I had examined them more thoroughly: scriptural inerrancy, biblical authority, sexual orientation, gender variance, the abilities and roles of women, evolutionary theory…each time an item was added to the list I found myself thinking, “If I looked at this the same way I look at everything else, if I examined it as closely and criticized it as thoroughly, the church’s answer wouldn’t hold up. Why should I make exceptions (“Take it on faith,” “His ways are higher than our ways,” “Ask about it in Heaven,” etc.) for church dogma?”

I can’t say I studied deeply into every topic, but I tried to grasp the best arguments from all relevant sides. When something failed to pass even the most cursory logic test—such as the notion that the sun was created on the fourth “day” of Creation (What defined ‘day’ before the sun was made? Why were plants made before their primary source of fuel?)—I spent less time trying to ‘make it work,’ and instead proceeded with the more likely scenarios: the Bible is not reliable source of scientific information.

Of course, there are Christians who regard Genesis 1 and 2 as poetry or metaphor, do not have moral qualms with homosexuality, dismiss the Bible as a source of scientific information, and further regard it as a partial memoir of humanity’s experience with flickers of the divine—a response to revelation. Some “Christians” with a Jeffersonian slant are even willing to concede the virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection as symbolic or flat falsehoods, while still maintaining esteem for the “great teacher.” (C.S. Lewis’s “Jesus problem” is only a problem if you believe the scriptures are historically reliable, and Jesus actually said what others say he said.) For a time I considered myself to be such a “Christian,” but then what is left of the original meaning behind the word?

Again my intellectual integrity—my esteem for critical consistency—led me to believe that there were limits on the efficacy of self-identification. Without knowing what they called themselves, I would not look at a person who questioned Jesus’ divinity, did not believe in the Trinity (I didn’t), did not acknowledge the scientific, biographical, or moral authority of the Bible (Leviticus, Joshua, and Judges put a swift end to that), and call them a Christian. So why was I willing to apply the label to myself?

Intellectual integrity means consistency in the way I evaluate the world. I cannot turn off my reason, or exempt topics from complete examination (without opening myself up to complete world collapse). Whatever truth is out there can stand up to the challenge.


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