February 23, 2015

Sowing Season

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”Isaac Asimov

The word "Philosophy" comes from the Greek philosophia, meaning "love of Wisdom."

But what is Wisdom? Is it merely knowing a set of facts about the workings of the natural worldor is there some deeper level of understanding that is required to attain to this stature?

Science is built on Knowledge; on gathering observable evidence about the movement of matter, then predicting its future behavior by generating "laws" based on mathematical models. In the last 500 or so years, Science has made leaps and bounds in our level of understanding of the material world that we inhabitdispelling old, worn-out worldviews and engendering hopes that were previously thought impossible. Through it, we have revolutionized our medicine, tools, technology, transportation, buildings, means of production and every other conceivable material measure of value. However, our knowledge of the "human heart" seems to remain practically stagnated.

Some have taken this to mean that the questionHow should a person be?is a complete non-starter, or more or less useless: it is a question without answer; everything is simply relative to one's time and place; or the human good is entirely personal/subjective.

But I see this problem a little differently.

Perhaps the reason we have made no upward advancements in the "humane" fields of Knowledge akin to the ones in Natural Science is because there is no place to which we can ascend. The word Utopia is Greek for "no place," after all. But I do not believe this insight to be as deeply pessimistic as it initially soundsit is not that "progress" cannot be made in how we organize human relations, but rather that there is nothing new in principle to discover.

A discussion today on the nature of Empathy would not be any fundamentally different than it was 2,500 years ago when Socrates first sat around discussing it with his companions. Justice, Selfishness, Money-Seeking, Courage, Sex, Loyaltythe list goes on and onall retain the same basic problem of Theory vs Practice that they have always engendered. Sure, the material means through which Ambition can exert itself today has certainly changed, but the basic issue of how to direct it away from selfish rewards and toward the common good remains identical.

It is only, therefore, through a discussion of how we use our growing body of Knowledge that Wisdom may be obtained. And while it must certainly include Scientific Knowledge, it must also transcend it. Only through Wisdom can we delineate between the necessary and the possible, between need and desire, whereas Knowledge is only a description of its various manifestations. Wisdom, I would characterize, then, as the attempt at Knowledge about how to navigate the minefield of the Human Condition, in order to flourish to the highest degree humanly possible.

But above all, I believe it to be the recognition that there is no such thing as costless progress; that for every "advancement," Nature always exacts a trade-off. I will speak more about this later, but for now a quick example: the Internet. It's absolutely amazingI'm speaking to the entire world right now (well, at least in theory, if anyone actually chooses to read this); the boundaries and borders dividing humanity have been erased; and the entire book of Human Knowledge is at my finger tips. However, at the same time, the Internet is blamed for all sorts of problems, as well: ADHD, major privacy concerns, the dumbing down of public discourse into merely what's clickable.

So Wisdom must be the ability to recognize limitations/conflicts of interest, and the Knowledge necessary to maximize trade-offs. It is the most essential tool to living a personally humane life and creating a universally humane world. Today, we say that the most important outcome of education is to teach people to think critically. But I believe the true goal of education is to teach us to think wisely. The main impediment to this seems to be that our esteemed bastions of "Higher Education" now only deal in "Knowledge" and pretend that Wisdom either doesn't exist or cannot be discussed openly and honestly.

To that I say, You reap what you sow.

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