Why wisdom is redundant nonsense in the light of information theory

The key, therefore, is to find the wisdom necessary to wield this sword of science. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant once said, “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.” In my opinion, wisdom is the ability to identify the crucial issues of our time, analyze them from many different points of view and perspectives, and then choose the one that carries out some noble goal and principle.

Michio Kaku, The Physics of the Future, p. 304

I view the interventions of scientists into the realm of philosophy with something akin to an all-consuming disappointment. This is only fair, as they view the interest of philosophers in the implications of scientific discovery as the dangerous meddling of intellectual infants. The assumption is that philosophy (and other areas of the humanities) is done via language, and they speak the same language, only plus the precision of the scientific languages they also have at their disposal. Accordingly, what they have to say about philosophy is more valid than what we have to say about science. These are some observations, but they are not everything I want to say. I want to point out a contradiction in what Kaku says, and the implications of this.

He suggests that wisdom is a continual cycling through options and perspectives to find one that tallies with a “noble goal or principle”. The first issue with this is the notion that we simply need to settle upon a definition of what wisdom means (it can only refer to one thing – the multiple nature of language is to be coralled by the axiomatic method). Thus, what we have is a method to apply, a noun-centric attitude which allows us to see the world in terms of vectors. We are here, and we want to go there – and there is a place which everybody knows we want to be. The difficulty with this is that there has always been disagreement over goals. This can be taken as at the root of the modernist and post-modernist debate, that teleology is damaging to human thought and action, and so that it needs to be problematized.

There are no such qualms in science (or if there are, there are fewer, and they are concealed behind the activity of science), because there must be a goal. It is specific and tangible, and the notion of activity of activity as for something, or towards something is built into the structure of scientific activity. Research contributes to scientific knowledge, which in turn either opens up new avenues of investigations, with this process of scientific investigation either repeating or the the research leading towards technological application of the principles involved. As such, scientific activity can lead to an unambiguous relationship with truth.

Even if a principle does not hold across different conditions (i.e., with the viscosity of different liquids changing at different pressures) there is a reason – a scientific principle – that accounts for this. There is one truth valid for each condition (I am not involving anything quantum because it is statistical and theoretical, and abused far too often as a relativising stick with which to thrash science). The notion of ambiguitiy and simultaneous truths, or equally valid interpretations is anathema to the scientific outset – and rightly so. The thing is for science and the humanities (if we had a word like the Germans have Geisteswissenchaften I would be a happier man) to maintain their tense coexistence, each understanding the other’s sphere of influence.

When this is not done, we get the conflation of wisdom and knowledge such as that committed by Kaku here. I have left it an unspoken assumption of mine for quite a while now that the concept of ‘wisdom’ is no longer of any use to us, and should be dropped as an embarrassment. In the DIKW pyramid, I habitually exclude it. We know what data is, we know what information is, and we know what knowledge is. Wisdom, however remains undefined and undefinable, and for this very reason it is to be dropped. Can you show me an example of wisdom? If you can, I can show you an empty platitude, a disfunctional generalization which lacks sophistication, finesse, and any hope of application. In short, wisdom is nonsense.

It may once have served a purpose, as a form of embodied, incorporated information storage in chaotic, unstable times. Today, however, it is redundant in the literal sense, given that now we have storage galore. Now, sure, we condescend to the ‘wisdom’ of ‘other cultures’ which we ‘value’ – but this is no more than intellectual chauvinism masquerading as tolerance, as respect. If we truly respected the role of wisdom as a form of information exchange (and most significantly – preservation) we would recognise its irrelevance for those of us in the post-industrial, developed world. All the functions served by wisdom in non-technologically-advanced, non-literate society (not today, but down through history) are amply catered for us in our contemporary world, with multiple buffer levels of redundancy. What counted as wisdom in the past is now ‘tacit knowledge’, or ‘common sense’, or ‘ideology’, or ‘the done thing’. So why can we not see wisdom for the utter con that it is?

Because it is a fluffy word to which people (a scientist such as Kaku here) can pay lip-service, with no actual effect. With the word wisdom, with the concept, you are committed to nothing, because you are investing in a noun which is nothing, which is empty. Because it is easier to pretend to respect the creation of content, and live off its surplus, than to actually respect it and to reward the creators of non-instrumental, non-scientific, non-technological knowledge accordingly.

The question/objection might justly be raised in answer to this that if we do away with wisdom, then what is there? I have, after all, previous discussed the problems I have with the DIKW pyramid even without wisdom (“In defence of ideas in a world of data”). Am I not contradicting myself somewhat? No, and here is why. In the above I have shown that there is a problem with latching on to a word which pretends to be a concept with some content, as it leads to the instrumental view of human knowledge.

This is the root of Hans Georg Gadamer‘s entire critique of the translation of scientific principles and perspectives into the humanities (sociology, politics, literature, philosophy, rhetoric) in his great work Truth and Method. He was writing of the irrelevance of truth and the danger of method in the realm of human knowledge. These lead to a static mindset, one that leads to lazy thought. It works in science, but not in philosophy. So instead of “wisdom” as a thing, as a noun, I would suggest instead the approaches which Gadamer illustrated as being important. Thus we have critique as an activity, philosophy as an on-going effort, and rhetoric as a process.

Where science has nouns and things (even if these things are processes), the humanities themselves are verbs – they are in themselves processes. Wisdom is a throwback to a pre-digital form of information storage and exchange. We are capable of so much more, in technological terms. The key is to use, to instrumentalise these technologies and techniques in the service of the humanities. The way things are done in the humanities is different, but this difference must be maintained. Just as philosophy and sociology illuminated the interior of the sciences (Popper, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Gadamer, Latour), science too can be used by the humanities to see itself more clearly and to perform its function with a renewed vigour.

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7 thoughts on “Why wisdom is redundant nonsense in the light of information theory

  1. This is a great post!

    I am loathe to drag out Stephen Hawking, as if this were an episode of the Simpsons, (especially given the fact of his recent derogatory remarks towards philosophy-although part of his beef that philosophy has abandoned fundamental questions is I think a legitimate one). Yet, it seems to me that even science, though only physicists seem to have gotten the memo, has adopted an almost post-modernist understanding of truth.

    In his Grand Design, Hawking makes the case that not even the best scientific theories we have represent the truth- they are mere maps- and sometimes wholly incompatible maps at that. This, of course, is not to suggest that all theories are equal. I remember eons ago having a debate with my cultural anthropology professor who insisted on a strong version of relativism. There was a culture that understood the world to be an egg that was laid by some sort of god, and my professor insisted that this was equally true to our own ideas. I can clearly remember saying to him “But the earth’s not an egg! We’ve seen it from space”.

    For me, the problem between natural science and the humanities (and here I include literature, art, religion, and philosophy) occurs when either tries to make claims to have the same type of validity as the other. Creationists are vulgar and absurd when they try to come off as science, but science is equally vulgar and absurd when it tries to act like a religion- like the transhumanists. I especially dislike people like Richard Dawkins who would like to throw out millennia of religious, and philosophical thought because it gets its’ cosmology wrong. The value of the tradition of the humanities is that it contains generations of people who tried to wrestle with the fundamental questions of the human condition- what is love, violence, war, hope, family, friendship, society, politics, death, freedom- and a thousand others? (The kinds of fundamental questions Hawking lamented were no longer discussed by philosophers).

    If Kaku understands wisdom as culture then I might agree with him on some level. Even if culture doesn’t have solutions it shapes the answers to current questions. It would certainly seem easier to live in a “uniform” culture where core assumptions and goals were largely shared because it would allow “wisdom” or “organized” life to emerge more easily and with less contention.

    I, however, like the fact that such issues will only be resolved for us through discussion and debate- but this, of course, is my own inherited- Greek- version of what wisdom means.

  2. While doing some research for a paper in work, I discovered the following which I see as connected with the above points you are making. It’s a lecture by John Unsworth entitled “New Methods for Humanities Research” (http://people.lis.illinois.edu/~unsworth/lyman.htm), which illustrates that there is a possibility of exchange between these two spheres of knowledge (what Gadamer deliciously calls a Horizontverschmelzung, or a fusion of horizons), the human and the scientific. Notwithstanding Unsworth’s use of the word method (which I find troubling, as outlined in the above post).

    Regarding wisdom as a uniform culture, I find this deeply unsettling. Is this not the essence of ideology? What of a nation/country/people who are not the masters of their political and consequently cultural and social identities (this could be Ireland pre-1922, or be it the Czechs under the Hapsburgs, or anything else). The notion of a goal and organization has been comprehensively problematized – using that word again, apologies – by the humanities across a range of disciplines in the 20th Century, and shown to not be as value neutral as it might be in the sciences.

    In this light, wisdom, or “goals” or “organized life” or whatever else are no more than an excuse to not have to think ever again. “This is what be believe it” becomes “don’t rock the boat” becomes “you’re either with us or against us”. This is not a slippery-slope argument, rather it is the inbuilt trajectory of all attempts at defining normality. Kaku seeks to define wisdom, and in doing so pulls the rug out from beneath himself, not because organization and the search for knowledge are mutually exclusive, but because the search for knowledge must resist the impulse that lies >behind< the push for codification, regularization. I never really thought I would come to a point where I am advocating some sort of epistemological anarchism (especially as I don't particularly like Feyerabend), but I think this is the only conclusion I can reach!

  3. Pingback: Daily Leadership Thought #97 – Be Wary of Overly Strong Opinions « Ed Robinson's Blog

  4. Andrew, please understand that I come from a somewhat different perspective being largely unversed in the specifics of post-modern theory and thus may not share, or perhaps even immediately grasps your underlying assumptions.
    I was unfortunately unclear in my meaning of the word “culture”. I meant it perhaps in the Burkean sense of institutionalized memory. That is, any long lived group or institution is bound to have experienced historical events whose lessons it hands down.

    Is this problematic in the sense that these “lessons” are sometimes, perhaps most often, perpetuated by an elite with a power-agenda? Certainly, but I think these “lessons” can also be found in places we think we both probably agree are positive- say the cultural memories of America’s founders regarding abuses of power under Cromwell- which served as part of the basis for American’s tradition of political liberties, or “lessons” that have only been learned in more recent from more recent political events- for instance the value of sexual and racial equality.

    Let me give you an example of what I mean. Tonight, like I often do, I taught an English class online for international students who hail from every country and culture imaginable. We had a discussion on the Muslim boycott of Google over that obnoxious video. One of my Muslim students attempted to make the case that the video should be banned EVERYWHERE i.e. not just in Islamic countries as Google under pressure from the state department had done. I in turn tried to make the case for the importance of freedom of speech from my American (and I should underline American because most European countries don’t share our strict definition of free speech) point of view. Both of our perspectives were ready made responses that emerged from our native cultures.

    What I was trying to communicate with my prior post is that in areas or questions where the lessons of culture are largely non-contested the answers are “easy”. What do we do in a technological age when anyone can make a video on any topic imaginable and disseminate it globally? From the viewpoint of my Muslim student the answer is self-evident- if the subject is sacrilegious we take it down. From my perspective as an American we let it up there and let the “marketplace of ideas” decide its’ worth.

    Much better than either, I think, is the kind of consensual democracy symbolized by the discussion in my class where the production of a culturally vicious piece of “art” becomes a vector for conversation about what art, or speech, or reverence, or any other human value relevant to an issue is discussed, where no assumption is made that we will come up with a “final” answer. Maybe I should call it philosophical anarchism.

  5. Apologies for the delay in replying! If you’re talking Burke when you discuss culture, I think we’re approaching the same chapter, if not necessarily the page. Again, I think I have to clarify matters for myself in terms of hermeneutics, in that there are a number of ways of interpreting the context of a problem with which we are presented. Paul Ricoeur makes the distinction between hermeneutics of tradition (which I think best describes your position) and hermeneutics of suspicion (which I think approximates my own stance).

    The thing is that both tradition and suspicion are required for a fully-rounded/inclusive hermeneutics which is capable of interacting with new problems. I am not convinced that any one person can ever manifest the qualities required for each approach (thus Gadamer’s disagreements with Habermas and Derrida; Gadamer was fairly clear in his hermeneutics of tradition sympathies, whereas Habermas and Derrida respectively were further along the continuum of suspicion).

    I agree with you nevertheless that “leave it up there” is the only realistic approach to take, because it is the only thing which has been proven consistently to work. The consensual democratic discussion you mention is a fine example of a full hermeneutics (both tradition and suspicion), given that it structurally is designed so that it can account for differences of epistemology, political theory, ontology, etc. Nevertheless, I am loathe to emphasise the “harmony” that might come from this, and rather would emphasise the tension (Ricoeur’s favoured term) that is a result of the interactions in this realm.

    I think that for any society to grow and develop, and more closely approach its own ideals, it must move beyond what is comfortable and easy. You mention freedom of speech as strictly defined in America as opposed to Europe, but I would demur here. I think it is strictly codified, in terms of the First Amendment, but it is a principle which is well-established in Ireland, as in the rest of Europe according to our own constitutions. I raise this because even with the First Amendment, freedom of speech can and has been abgrogated, when other principles have been regarded as superior or taking precedence. Thus I would suggest that we always need to recognise the importance of “re-opening” questions that we regard as settled, given that we may now have the social, political, cultural, intellectual tools at our disposal to find a better solution. This is why I would emphasise tension and suspicion, but not exclusively so. It requires the soil of tradition to grow, just as tradition requires the nutritive capacity of suspicion to “make it new”, to reinvigorate a tradition.

  6. On the last point, I just came across this quote (which apparently isn’t from Mark Twain): ‘it ain’t what we don’t know that causes trouble, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so’.

  7. Your thoughtful and nuanced response was well worth the wait. Your comments reminded me of an essay by Hannah Arendt on Socrates as a gadfly. Her point was that one of the results of all of Socrates’ questioning could indeed be nihilism or moral relativism, but only as distorted version of what he was after, Socrates goal with all his challenges to contemporary notions of the good, the beautiful, the just, was to refine our capacity for judgement- that only by engaging in these difficult conversations, conversations that never had final answers, that always explored the tension between culture and the unique perspective of the individual would we not just accept things as they were, but move ever so slowly towards an enriched capacity to grasp the world we live in. I think this is what you’re getting at above, and if so I agree with whole heart.

    Also, really glad you’re interested in an online discussion group. I still have to work out the logistics, and as always I have a lot on my plate and it may take longer than I anticipate, but if I can get it off the ground it should be a pretty interesting group: there’s you, a scientist from Indonesia, a neuro-scientist photographer from India, a mystic from Philadelphia, a libertarian from Yellowstone country, a science writer, a political activist from Italy, and a science-fiction writer. Once I get my act together I’ll let you know. If you know any interesting characters who might want to join let me know- the more varied perspectives the better.

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