Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Mark of Wisdom

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 21, 2007

Posted to ITForum, January 21, 2007.

I think that wisdom is the property of the wise, something a wise person develops for him or her self over time, and therefore not the subject of an external standard. What makes a person wise is not the having of a certain opinion, or even the taking of a certain perspective or point of view. To be wise is to have mastered and to have used successfully for a certain period of time the practices that lead to wisdom. The question of whether someone has become wise (and not, note, 'acquired wisdom') is indeterminate in its resolution. Certainly, there is no acid test that identifies the wise (though we can all think of numerous examples we think would demonstrate that someone is unwise).

As Clark Quinn mentioned in his paper, I have listed the practices that I think lead to wisdom in a column on my blog. It should be noted on reading that each of the ten items describes a skill. It describes 'how' to do something. This is deliberate. The outcome of the application of any such skill must be left to the learner. For otherwise, acquisition of the outcome, rather than practice of the skill, becomes definitive of wisdom, and therefore the tendency will be to focus on the outcome at the expense of the skill, at the cost of never learning the skill.

For example, one of the skills I describe is 'How to predict consequences'. The statement of this principle could be questioned - Jonathon Richter quite rightly argues that the skill needs to apply not only to simple Newtonian systems with determinate outcomes but also to complex and chaotic environments in which the prediction is of only a probability or a range of outcomes. But it would be a mistake to say that the acquisition of this skill entails believing, say, that good intentions lead to good actions, or believing, say, that continued inaction on global warming will lead to catastrophe.

To make the test of the skill the test of a believe is to measure, not the having of the skill, but rather, the adherence to orthodoxy. Not everybody predicts the same effect from the same causes: that this can be the case, and that each of the two predictions can be substantiated is evidence, not of predictive failure, but rather, of the chaotic world Richter alludes to.

In a similar manner, some of the writers to this list have characterized 'humility' as one of the attributes of wisdom. Jan Visser characterizes humility as "the awareness of who we are, of our place in the universe, of what lies beyond our own ephemeral existence." Thus characterized, however, humility is characterized not as a practice or a skill but rather as an awareness that certain things are the case. But this test, then, is of what someone believes rather than how they came to believe it, and hence, is not a test of wisdom but of orthodoxy.

It is possible to be wise without humility. To be honest, I do not know my own place in the universe (and routinely disregard the admonishment "that's not your place"). I do not know what lies outside my own existence, if anything. I consider the following two statements to be equally likely: "I am in the universe" and "the universe is in me". From which it follows that there is a great deal I do not know about myself. Being wise may lie in accepting any of these dilemmas, or in opting, on the basis of faith or intuition, one statement or the other.

Clark Quinn's own argument takes the perspective that wisdom results from practice. "Wisdom is making decisions on a systemic basis..." he writes. And that "it's very much a journey, not a destination." But in so much of what he writes the outcome, rather than the process, does the heavy lifting. The sentence quoted above reads, in full, "wisdom is making decisions on a systemic basis that are in line with our [interests] in the long-term as well as the immediate moment, and in line with our values for not only ourselves but others and society and the world as a whole." I have had to insert the word 'interests' as it is missing in the original, though it could read 'needs' or even 'fashions' at still make the same point.

And the point is: wisdom is characterized by having a certain type of perspective, of using a certain metric. But it seems to me that this should be an outcome of wisdom, and not definitive of it. Is being wise tantamount to enlightened self-interest? This is what the sentence seems to imply. But being wise may equally entail disregard for one's own self-interest, in rising above one's own self-interest. Certainly some Buddhists are wise, but central to the philosophy of Buddhism is what one might characterize as "the cessation of craving" or the cessation of clinging - taking one's own interest and seeing it as the cause of pain, of Dukkha.

As with humility and self-interest, the matter of values is also one of content over process. Quinn writes that the wise person makes decisions, as noted above, "in line with our values for not only ourselves but others and society and the world as a whole." One could hardly find a more compelling example of a call for orthodoxy! He adds, "We'd need to discuss values and deliberately choose a value system to embody. Whichever one we choose (and this is difficult subject all on it's own), we'll want to make it explicit."

Certainly there may be arguments for and against a values-based education, just as (say) there may be arguments for or against values-based government, or values-based religion, or values-based economic systems. But to make basing one's reasoning in values definitive of wisdom seems very much to be over-shooting the mark.

Why would I say this? For after all, people familiar with my own work will be well aware of a set of values that permeates it through and through. Yet deeper study will show that I well regard my own work as deeply situated within a certain society, a certain context, and that the values I espouse recognize this, and hence, do not presume to pass judgment on how the other person elects to live his or her own life. And it is a part of this belief to recognize that another person may not live his or her life according to values at all, and yet may nonetheless be wise.

Consider what it is to live one's life or to make decisions according to values. Quinn helpfully quotes Gladwell: "One of humankind's biggest problems in decision-making is assigning the wrong weights to the variables. If I have an ethical system, I have a way of assigning those weights" - Malcolm Gladwell. Having values is depicted as - and indeed, arguably is - nothing more than a system of assigning weights to variables, to possibilities, to options. The simplest of value systems is to assign to all things a binary value: right or wrong, good or bad. More sophisticated approaches assign weightings of good and bad, and allow for an interplay between the entities so judged.

How completely the mercantile philosophy has permeated our way of life, that we cannot even imagine the concept of wisdom without also imagining some way of applying weights and measures to its application! Are the philosophies of epicurianism, of hedonism, wrong not because they are bad values but because they deal in quality of experience, quality of life, rather than with the calculation and measurement of what is right and wrong? Lao Tzu says that the attachments of values to things are nothing more than labels, nothing more than signs, and that wisdom consists in recognizing that there is always another way of representing the same reality. Friedrich Nietzsche describes, in Beyond Good and Evil, the transvaluation of value. J.L. Mackie is explicit, in Ethics Without God, that we are "inventing right and wrong".

The appeal of values, as are the appeal of natural laws and the idea of essences, is the appeal of the universal, the idea that there is some means though which me may abbreviate the complexities of our lives and our universe through appeal to some sort of underlying principle, whether that principle represents the Nature of the world, or whether it represents nothing more than an abbreviation of our experience and beliefs. But this is only one way of representing the world or of determining out course of action. Numerous alternatives exist.

Consider, for example, what you would do were you confronted by a strange creature, one that you had never seen before, consisting of an animal with brightly coloured fur, with sharp teeth and savage claws, and a roar that sent chills down your spine. Would wisdom at this point consist in the application of some set of values? Is there some principle of measurement to which you would appeal in this case? Almost certainly not. We most certainly have not formulated any rules describing what to do in such a case - certainly we do know what to do (run!) but any drafting of a rule would happen after the fact. Our actions would be determined by recognition and similarity. It looks like a tiger, best treat it as though it were a tiger.

If we consider our own actions, even for a moment, it becomes clear how many of them are not determined by any sort of value at all (and which are, nonetheless, wise). We breathe, our hearts beat, our blood circulates, not because we will it to be the case, not because it is good or right that it be the case, but merely because we are the sort of creatures that live and breathe. And surely part of being wise lies in being what you are, rather than what you are not? This is why we thought the characters of 'Flatliners' were unwise.

Others of our decisions are governed by what I would call 'network phenomena'. One of the principles of a successful network is 'diversity' - diverse networks are more reliable than those that are not. Fostering diversity, however, means fostering instances of actions and entities that precisely do not adhere to orthodox values. We've all heard the expression, "The exception proves the rule." We recognize that 'generosity is good' (say) by observing (or telling tales) of Scrooge-like people who are not generous, and observing their fate. There may not have been a King Midas turned to gold, but we are all aware from observation the poverty of greed.

What is important here is not that the value was discovered, nor the specific content of the value, but rather, that a process was followed that would allow this learning to take place. That is, we have the capacity to, should we so desire, learn what values there are, and how to apply them, should this be the sort of life we desire. Other people, equally wise, may choose to live their lives value-free, and will report a very different set of experiences. And it has yet to be shown, without prior appeal to values, that their experiences are in some way 'bad' or 'wrong'. As Nietzsche would say, the Superman makes his own rules - and who are we to say he is wrong?

To the extent that there is wisdom in society, it is the result of certain practices, that make people wise, rather than adherence to certain outcomes, that people (today) say are the mark of the wise. Learning this distinction, perhaps, is the first sign of wisdom.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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