The Noble Conspectus: Wisdom

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Chapter 3 of 5

Ask the Question
Many of us would say that we want to be wise. Yet, before we can even begin on that path, we must first ask, "What is wisdom?" So often, the question is never even asked, yet the importance of the question is monumental. How can one pursue something if he or she doesn't know what it is?

Certainly, this does not mean merely looking up the definition in a dictionary. To know what a word linguistically means is not the same as really understanding the concept the word embodies. So, before trying to become wise, we should ask ourselves the question.

Then, we must set out on a mission to answer the question. This includes dwelling on it, considering what wisdom is and is not. But the answers cannot solely come from within our own minds. We must look outward as well and explore what others have found or believe about wisdom. We must parse it out carefully from that which is not wisdom (such as intelligence, knowledge, and so on). We must look at people who are considered wise and ask ourselves if they are indeed wise and, if so, why? Answering the question in depth and detail is a lifelong exploration, but one may find that in seeking to answer it, wisdom itself is improved.

The Open Mind
Certainly a part of wisdom is in keeping one's mind open. But what an open mind is and what it is not must be explained. An open mind is one that is always seeking Truth, without being absolutist in its claim of what that Truth is or must be beforehand. A person with an open mind does not take up a position as a banner, as though defending one's "side". His or her goal is never to win a debate, but to arrive at the Truth, regardless of whose initial position that may be.

When claims are presented, the open mind will make an active effort to consider such claims carefully. In cases where the claims seem untrue, the problems with the claims should be addressed so that those making the claims can respond. That response should also be considered. In this manner, the open mind peels away the layers of a claim, examining each foundational premise on which it is made, without being presumptive or dismissive.

There may be strong emotions which urge us to dismiss claims out of hand when they disagree with our world views, but part of the challenge of keeping an open mind is resisting this urge. We should not allow our passions to interfere with our investigation of Truth or to lure us into tests of personality or ego. Although cynics will say that such is impossible, we should attempt to see beyond our biases. While we may never be perfect at it, such is a skill and it can be improved over time - but the conscious effort is a minimum requirement.

There are also many misconceptions about the open mind. The open mind is not one which will never draw conclusions. One who keeps an open mind is not one who holds no opinions or beliefs. One with an open mind will give all information a fair hearing, allowing claims to be examined, countered, and examined further until understanding is reached. But once this is done, even those with an open mind will come to a conclusion. To not do so would be folly were it not outright impossible.

Once this conclusion is drawn it is not set in stone, but rather, it is malleable and held conditionally by an open mind. If new claims or information are presented, then these must be fairly evaluated and should be able to alter that conclusion if the new information warrants it. Furthermore, additional argument may allow even old information to be evaluated again.

But while all conclusions should be open to continual evaluation, let it not be confused that once a conclusion has been drawn (especially if drawn after considerable thought), new information and points of argument must overcome that which has already been evaluated.

And a final misconception about the open mind, is that it does not bind one to evaluating the same arguments and information over and over endlessly. If no new information is being presented, and claimants are merely repeating claims emphatically, then the open mind is free to move on until new argument or information can be evaluated. Those with whom we disagree will often confuse and open mind which has drawn a conclusion with a closed one. Agreement with any and all claims, and a reluctance to draw conclusions is not the mark of an open mind.

Reason & Knowledge
When the mind is open, new claims can be evaluated. But how are they to be evaluated? The wise person will seek to develop his or her reasoning abilities in order that claims may be evaluated.

This includes learning about the forms of logical argument, and the distinction between that which is logically valid and that which is logically true. Also included in the study of logic would be the common logical fallacies, in order that we may seek to avoid making them. A general understanding of philosophy is also helpful in reasoning skills.

Knowing how the scientific method operates is most helpful for evaluation of claims regarding the material world.

This includes a belief in an objective physical universe, which can be measured and understood through science (although the process is imperfect and not immune to error). However, it is not the current findings of science which the wise are committed to, but rather, it is the process of science in which he or she holds confidence. A dogmatic commitment to any particular finding of science would itself be unscientific since all assertions of science must remain open to continued scrutiny and possible revision in the light of new evidence. Still, this does not preclude the ability of a wise person to hold a reasonable degree of certainty toward a finding, in relation to the amount of physical evidence supporting it.

The reason for confidence in the scientific method is due to historic experience. The effectiveness of the scientific method has been displayed through its ability to make accurate prediction and empower human beings to create inventions, cures, and solutions to problems that work. If another method is one day revealed which produces the same or greater level of effectiveness, then it should also gain the confidence of wise people. Until then, it seems that science is the best tool for understanding the physical universe.

The wise person, then, will have a respect for the endeavor of science, the process of science, and the findings of science to the degree that they are supported by the consensus of the scientific community. He or she will make an active effort to gain a healthy understanding of the basics of science, as part of his or her growth and enlightenment. A wise person will not purposely believe, support, or promote antiscience, pseudoscience, or that which contradicts science when it comes to facts about the material universe.

At the same time, a wise person is humble and understands that to err is human. This applies to matters of faith, as well as matters of science. Therefore, arrogance and closed mindedness is to be avoided in both realms.

Even more broadly, the methods of skepticism are essential to good reasoning. Skepticism does not mean "doubt" but is, rather, the opposite of credulity. There is a skeptical approach to knowledge and knowing the difference between cynicism and a healthy skepticism is beneficial.

And, of course, we should seek to educate ourselves on matters of fact in a wide range of topics, and at least have a good idea of where (and where not) to find facts. Being a knowledgeable person gives us a good backdrop of facts on which to evaluate claims. Where we do not know a relevant fact, we should withhold judgment until we do.

Beyond Knowledge
Knowledge, rationality, good reasoning skills, and logic are necessary for wisdom, but they are not sufficient. A person may be highly knowledgeable, intelligent, and adept at logical argument, but be unwise at the same time. These things form only the most rudimentary backdrop for genuine wisdom.

The most difficult aspect of wisdom may be using our knowledge and rationality to grasp the broad and the subtle, turning knowledge into understanding. This entails connecting all of the information into a robust model of the world, life, and meaning. This model should offer insights into what is most effective and worthy. Wisdom is knowing what is beneficial within the big picture. The "big picture" means consideration of not only the most efficient answers, but answers which take into account what is practical and pragmatic, what is humane and compassionate, and what can realistically be achieved.

More than simple knowledge of the world, knowledge of ourselves is crucial to wisdom, if not central. This includes having a fair and objective assessment of ourselves, our emotional state, and our motivations. It also involves an accurate understanding of what we really know and what we only think. This knowledge must be matched by useful lessons and habits which allow us to have long term control over ourselves.

None of this (an open mind, knowledge, self knowledge) is possible without a dedication to seek truth above personal comfort whenever the two conflict. The baseline human tendency is to retreat to the familiar and the comfortable whenever challenged. But the wise person must transcend personal preference, fear, and ego in the pursuit of truth. Wisdom is not possible without such an effort.

Last but not least, wisdom is impossible without some attempt to appreciate and understand matters of ethics and the cultivation of virtue. A wise person will have some concept of the inherent benefit of ethical principles to both the whole and the individual. He or she will understand how and why one who is unethical is ultimately self destructive. Virtue and wisdom are so inclusive of one another, that they could almost be considered synonymous, as we will explore next.

Next Chapter: Virtue