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.