Monday, 12 April 2021

What Is Wisdom?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Wisdom is often offered as a person’s most-valuable quality, yet even ardent admirers might struggle to define or explain it. Some of philosophy’s giants, whether Confucius, Buddha, Plato, or Socrates, have concluded that wisdom is rooted not so much in what we do know, but in acknowledging what we don’t know — that is, in realising the extent of our own ignorance.

This humbleness about the limits of our knowledge and, further, ability to know — sometimes referred to by academics as ‘epistemic humility’ — seems a just metric as far as it goes. The term ‘epistemic’ referring to matters of knowledge: what we believe we know, and in the particular case of epistemic humility, the limitations of that knowledge. An important thread begins to appear here, which is the role of judgment in explaining the totality of wisdom.

To repudiate boundaries on our knowledge, or just as importantly on the ability to know, would amount to intellectual hubris. But, epistemic humility, while arguably one among other qualities of a person we might characterise as wise in some limited capacity, is not anywhere nearly enough to explain all that wisdom is.

Consider, for illustration, those people who might assume they know things they do not, despite the supposed knowledge existing outside their proficiency. What I’d call ‘epistemic conceit’ — and again, a key matter of judgment. A case in point might be a neuroscientist, with intimate knowledge of the human brain’s physiology and functions, and maybe of consciousness, concluding that his deep understanding of neuroscience endows him with the critical-thinking skills to invest his money wisely. Or to offer cogent solutions to the mathematical challenges of the physics of ‘string theory’.

Similarly, what about those things falling within the scope of a person’s expertise, theories claimed at the time to be known with a degree of confidence, until the knowledge suddenly proved false. Take the case of the geocentric (Earth-centered) model of the universe, and secondly of optical illusions leading to belief in the existence of so-called ‘Martian canals’. These are occasions of what we might call ‘epistemic unawareness’, to which we are humanly disposed no matter how wise.

Yet, while humbleness about the limits of our knowledge may provide a narrow window on wisdom, it is not definitive. Notably, there seems to be an inverse association between the number of factors claimed vital to fully explain wisdom, and how successfully the definition of wisdom may hold up as holes are poked into the many variables of the explanation under close scrutiny.

The breadth and depth of knowledge and experience are similarly insufficient to define wisdom in totality, despite people earnest chronicling such claims through the course of history. After all, we can have little knowledge and experience and still be decidedly wise; and we can have vast knowledge and experience and still be decidedly unwise. To understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom, and to make life’s decisions accordingly, calls on judgment.

Indeed, even exceptionally wise people — regardless of their field of expertise — can and do on occasion harbour false beliefs and knowledge, which one might call ‘epistemic inaccuracy’. History’s equivalents of such intellectual giants as Plato, Sun Tzu, Da Vinci, Beethoven, Goethe, Shakespeare, Fermat, and Einstein are no exception to this encompassing rule. Einstein, for example, proposed that the universe is static, of which he was later disabused by evidence that the universe is actually expanding and accelerating.

In the same vein, Plato was seemingly wrong about the imperative to define something as an ‘ideal’ before we attempt to achieve it, potentially hobbling efforts to reach practical, real-world goals like implementing remedies for inequitable systems of justice. Meanwhile, Shakespeare made both significant historical and geographical mistakes. And Goethe, wearing his polymath hat, erroneously refuted the Newtonian theory of the decomposition of white light, suggesting instead that colours appeared from mixing light and darkness.

More generally, how might we assess the wisdom of deep thinkers who lived centuries or even millennia ago, a large number of whose presumed knowledge had long been disproved and displaced by new paradigms? I doubt those thinkers’ cogency, insightfulness, prescience, and persuasiveness at the time they lived are any less impressive because of what turned out to be the demonstrated shelf half-life of their knowledge and insights.

Meanwhile, all this assumes we consider such exceptional intellects as not just exquisitely erudite, but also mindful of their own fallibility. As well as mindful of the uncertainty and contingency of what’s real and true in the world. Both assumptions about the conditions and requirement for critical mindfulness call for judgment, too.

Even a vast store of knowledge and experience, however, does not get us all the way to explaining the first principles of wisdom writ large as opposed to singular instances of acting wisely. A wise person’s knowledge and beliefs ought to match up with her behaviour and ways of living. Yet, that ingredient in what, say, minimally describes ‘a wise person’ likewise falls short of explaining full-on wisdom. Even highly knowledgeable people, if impulsive or incorrigibly immoral or amoral, may act unwisely; as in so many other ways, their putative lack of judgment here matters.

One fallback strategy that some philosophers, psychologists, and others resort to has been to lard explanation of wisdom with an exhausting catalog of qualities and descriptors in hope of deflecting criticism of their definition of wisdom. What I’d call the ‘potpourri theory of wisdom’. Somehow, as the thinking misguidedly goes, the more descriptors or factors they shoehorn into the definition, supposedly the more sound the argument.

Alternatively, wisdom might be captured in just one word: judgment. Judgment in what one thinks, decides, opines, says, and does. By which is meant that wisdom entails discerning the presence of patterns, including correspondences and dissimilarities, which may challenge customary canons of reality. Then turning those patterns into understanding, and in step turning understanding into execution (behaviours) — with each fork in this process warranting judgment.

Apart from judgment, notably all other elements that we might imagine to partially explain wisdom — amount and accuracy of knowledge, humility of what one knows and can know, amount and nature of experience — are firmly contingent on each other. Co-dependence is inescapable. Judgment, on the other hand, is the only element that is dependent on no others, in a category of one. I propose that judgment is both enough and necessary to define wisdom.


Unknown said...

Keith I highly recommend the book "The Hidden Half" by Michael Blastland. It to deals with what we think we know ( wisdom). He argues that we can never really know anything because under every explanation is the "Hidden Half that is unknowable.

Andrew Porter said...

I would proffer that wisdom is choosing to be imbued with nature's wisdom (the seat of value, free from human constructs) and the discernment and soundness that follows.

John Triplett said...

Keith, gosh, I certainly don't have sufficient wisdom or knowledge to pontificate on this frequently used noun description of human behavior. Perhaps we should not utilize the term at all but instead adhere to knowledge as the scientific basis for human behavior?

Keith said...

Thank you, ‘Unknown’, for the book recommendation; it sounds intriguing. Without having read the book, I don’t feel prepared to competently comment on it here. However, I’m tempted to seek out what the book has to say.

Meanwhile, as for the general principles you share (perhaps from the book), I’m not sure I totally agree, given the skimpy information I have in hand, with what sounds a bit like an ‘iceberg theory of knowledge’: that only a portion of reality bobs around in full view above the murky water, while the rest remains submerged.

Beyond saying that, however, I might venture a step further. That is, I propose there are at least three categories of knowledge we ought to keep in mind. One is knowledge that’s enduring; another is knowledge that at some point gets upturned (modified) or, even more radically, is replaced by an alternative wholesale paradigm; a third is what’s outright unknowable.

To my mind, the challenge is in sorting out what examples of knowledge fit within each of those three categories: known, paradigm shifting, unknowable. It’s fun to explore with a few what-ifs.

Keith said...

Thank you, Andrew, for your thoughtful comment.

I certainly appreciate the elevation of nature among our highest values. After all, nature is our home companion, an environment in which human beings and the rest of nature share a symbiotic relationship, even if sometimes unexplainably grudgingly so.

We can’t overlook that, in a seeming break of faith, human beings have irresponsibly wreaked considerable damage on nature, to which many science-based reports (like the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) have attested. It’s not a pretty picture.

But all that said, I would like to know more about what you refer to by ‘nature’s wisdom’. My cautionary note is for us to beware unduly anthropomorphising nature. To me, ‘nature’ and ‘wisdom’ seem to form an awkward bond — largely because I see wisdom as requiring a level of consciousness and agency that nature arguably doesn’t possess. I wonder about an unlevel playing field, therefore, in this regard.

I’d also mention one other thing, which cycles back to my referring, above in this comment, to ‘human beings and the rest of nature’. Yet, by definition, human beings are not somehow distinctly separate from nature; rather, they are an integral, inseparable part of nature.

So, by extension, when you say, ‘that wisdom is choosing to be imbued with nature’s wisdom’, aren’t ‘human beings’ wisdom’ and ‘nature’s wisdom’ therefore really indistinguishably one and the same thing?

Keith said...

I certainly agree, John, that science is, and ought to be, at least one ‘basis for [understanding, informing, inspiring] human behaviour’. But only one. To my mind, the thing about wisdom is the ostensible need for it in all fields of human endeavour, from the sciences to the humanities, and of course in garden-variety decision-making. It’s like water, which seeps into every crevice and runs along every channel to an eventual level of ‘everywhereness’ unequaled among other qualities that shape ‘human behaviour’.

John Triplett said...

Actually your response Keith, if I might opine, is an excellent example of "wisdom" in it's own right.
Thanks to all for a stimulating discussion.
I guess we next should question whether wisdom necessarily makes one "wise"?

Andrew Porter said...

Thanks, Keith, for opening the door; continuing discussion about wisdom, wherever, whenever, is a good thing. We might consider the instincts of animals, the regenerative powers of sea stars that grow back damaged arms, the balance in ecosystems, and the fine-tuning of the universe as suggestions that more is going on than our ken tends to reach. Human wisdom, if such is possible, indirectly refers, I think, to this 'consummate sense' which nature seems to have about harmony, preservation, and intensity of life. No anthropomorphizing needed. The question becomes how can we adapt our sources of what it means to be wise so that we, too, further the sustainable, just, and perspicacious.

Thomas Scarborough said...

To know that I don't know would hardly seem to be wise, but it would seem to indicate the answer. Wisdom is contingent on the scope and balance of what we think. Perhaps this is why 'the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom'. This introduces a kind of thinking that escapes narrow interests. Science, in my view, is on the other end of the scale, because it deliberately narrows our thinking through the scientific method. Its lack of wisdom is seen all around us today.

Keith said...

As to ‘the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom’, Thomas, I confess to grave concerns. In my opinion, I doubt the ‘fear’ of anything leads to the deepening of wisdom. To the contrary, I believe that fear notoriously clouds or even fully shuts down not only wisdom, but also understanding. In short, to my mind, I hardly think ‘fear’ is a sound basis for wisdom, let alone for faith in God. Put another way, I find it discouraging to hear that fear might be required to inspire faith. And I wonder why ‘fear of God’ is seen as a good thing, as it seems to smack of anger or vengefulness.

docmartincohen said...

Taking up Keith's proposal that wisdom is the ability to judge issues… it reminds me of ELIZA who was a very early and simple computer program supposed to play the role of a psychotherapist. ELIZA impressed users with her wise responses to their concerns and questions. Indeed, some users would follow her advice and became almost dependent on the regular consultation. All rather like REAL psychotherapy, I would suggest rather disgracefully… Anyway, was ELIZA wise? people accorded her that attribute. But the man who wrote the program was alarmed and appalled at her influence, and warned that it was the APPEARANCE only of wisdom, or rather intelligence. You see, ELIZA really just repeated back phrases the users had already used… it was the dumbest of dumb computers.

The point is, I think, that wisdom is in the eye of the beholder…

Keith said...

‘Was ELIZA wise?’ An interesting question, Martin.

My answer would be no, for the device was not rendering ‘judgment’, which my essay proposes is the crux of wisdom. Judgment, in turn, requires agency and intentionality and deliberation, which ELIZA by description clearly lacked.

As you rightly point out, Martin, ELIZA was a ‘simple computer program’ — in fact, I’d say a crude computer program, befitting the early-1960s timeframe. ELIZA was parroting and responding in knee-jerk fashion. There was no real information content. There was only the illusion of intelligence and wisdom. More a toy, in today’s standards.

From my standpoint, the program was so artless that, with the benefit of hindsight and given today’s technology, I certainly wouldn’t credit ELIZA with the term ‘artificial intelligence’. That some people may have fallen under ELIZA’s spell, that’s unfortunate, but I suggest that was more a matter of the social sciences than a matter of the computer sciences.

That’s where, I agree, the ‘eye of the beholder’ enters from stage right.

Thomas Scarborough said...

In reply to Keith, suppose that we apply my definition of wisdom as 'the scope and balance of what we think'. We take the saying, 'The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,' and in the interests of scope and balance, we invert it, and compare. 'The fear of nothing is the beginning of folly.'

With these two sayings so juxtaposed, the first no longer looks so strange. But one would need to define what 'fear' is, and define what 'God' is. In Keith's understanding, God would seem to be angry and vengeful, which might suggest a fairly medieval view.

As one drives through the centre of Cape Town, on one of the broadest of streets which is Strand Street, one sees the words in Dutch, 'The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.' Billions of people have believed this. While one cannot muddle up philosophy and theology, one should probably ask why.

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