Facing machetes and uncertainty

I found an answer.

I was thinking about the difference between intellectual and physical courage.

My first instinct was that physical courage is risking physical harm to protect another and intellectual courage is exposing and admitting the flaws in your own mind and ideas. It goes back to the two rules of skepticism.

I delved deeper.

I found an article about Omari Nyaega. The orphanage where he worked in Nairobi had been attacked unsuccessfully three times. They tried again.

“This time, however, a gang of eight had managed to break into the very bedroom where Nyaega slept. In an effort to protect the children, Nyaega instinctively threw a hammer at the attackers.

They responded by hacking him in the face with a machete. Near death and mutilated, the next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital.”

That’s physical courage.

Just so you know, I found that article again by googling “machete to the face.” Don’t do that. If you’re having a good day, it’ll bring you down a notch.

I then googled “intellectual courage” and had a root around. The general consensus is that intellectual courage is being able to deal with ideas, beliefs and opinions that contradict your own.

I also came across a good definition of what intellectual courage isn’t from this short article:

“The opposite of intellectual courage, intellectual cowardice, is the fear of ideas that do not conform to one’s own. If we lack intellectual courage, we are afraid of giving serious consideration to ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints that we perceive as dangerous. We feel personally threatened when they conflict significantly with our personal identity—when we feel that an attack on the ideas is an attack on us as a person.”

In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb talks about the erroneous quest for certainty. He contrasts Descartes as a seeker of certainty, with the “introspecting, insecure” Montaigne. He goes on to say:

“Montaigne stands tall as a role model for the modern thinker. In addition, the man had exceptional courage: it certainly takes bravery to remain skeptical; it takes inordinate courage to introspect, to confront oneself, to accept one’s limitations.”

The difference in practice between intellectual and physical courage is significant. Physical courage can only be put to the test in scenarios of high pressure and high stakes. Maybe once or twice in an average lifetime. Intellectual courage however, requires no such special case. Intellectual courage can be practised in the same way that we practise a sport, a skill or a craft. We can improve it every day.


By taking our most cherished beliefs, our hardest won knowledge, and attempting to shatter them. Assault them from many angles, poke, probe. Make them fight for survival.


Because what we know today is not necessarily right, just not yet proven wrong. And the less time we spend these cherishing false beliefs, the faster we can move to a better tomorrow.