Wisdom's Nature in Humans

We have to come to terms with the fact that within the efforts commonly known as human life there is a principle of abstraction which when well maintained informs all aspects of human knowledge and is the functional base of what we commonly view as wisdom.

This level of abstraction cannot be defined by an absolute degree or even a position relative to some standard of concrete; for example, it does not work to say "as abstract as the word 'tree' is relative to the experience of trees." For one thing, degrees of abstraction have not been well quantified in a replicable way. For another we are examining a problem more in function than in structure.

We can, however, say that the abstraction level required to achieve wisdom is the level of abstraction that will enable accurate prediction relative to purpose or intent.

For the repair of a plumbing circuit, then, the necessary abstraction is that found in terms such as inches of diameter and the replaceability of parts. A slightly more abstract sense of system interaction would be called into play for more complex circuits.

For the development of a civilization the degree of abstraction must be sufficient to predict a much more volatile interplay, involving many more variables.

We can avoid the arrogance of stating baldly what that level is or contains; to approach it more gracefully we can place our attention on examples when it has succeeded. Wisdom, in the final analysis, is that which succeeds. Thus, investment wisdom is not taken in by market corrections and responds sensitively to more fundamental trend changes. It requires a sense of the way markets work, abstracted from many experiences with the market; or it requires an intensively brilliant intuitive permeation of the scene. Either one will do. The latter case is unusual and is remarked on when found as brilliance, genius, or some other semi-mystical term. It may simply be an accelerated process of accurate abstraction, which we call wisdom.

Similarly, scientific wisdom calls into play the ability to abstract from pragmatic or experiential. circumstances an accurate paradigm of how things will go given certain factors. Without this ability it would have been impossible to replicate the discovery of the vacuum tube, for example, let alone make a viable product out of it; and transistors would be out of the question because of the precision with which the factors that go into them (silicon and arsenic in tiny molecular ratios, for example) have to be predicted.

Scientific and engineering wisdom, which are close kin, call for the ability to fulfill some intention; the scientific, to derive new data or certainty about data. The engineering, to produce a real effect in the universe.

Human wisdom in the sense of non-material wisdom has a similar construction; that is, it seeks to predict, to acquire greater understanding, or to produce some predicted result in the sphere of human interaction, such as a stabilized economy, an increased degree of excitement and motivation in a ball team, or a greater rate of productivity per man-hour in a corporate project. What wisdom does is succeed at predicting and at estimating the kind and degree of efforts involved in achieving a result.

There is individual wisdom as well, which is no less involved in achieving success, prediction, and the correct estimation of efforts; there is, as well, a kind of wisdom involving relations between sexes, child-rearing, financial and corporate matters, and possibly a kind of wisdom concerning our species overall: to have war or not, to hate for the sake of religion or not. Wisdom beyond these things might also be found governing the dynamics of life forms; preserving species, protecting sheep against marauding coyotes, or raising orchids which flourish.

It would be necessary, I think, for the sake of completeness, to argue for at least one other sphere in which the same origins can produce wisdom: the spiritual nature of the individual. It is wisdom of a certain material sense to be able to trace neurons and synapses back to their antecedents and explain how the circuitry of the brain is complex enough to reflect itself and perceive its reflection and be aware of its perception. It is quite another thing to use this material wisdom as a grounds for ensnaring the entirety of human nature in the net of material development. Even if doing so provides a limited kind of logical satisfaction according to certain standards, the net result of such an assertion is difficult at best and catastrophic at worst. The conviction that one is entirely composed of molecular interfaces is a philosophically untenable one the moment one includes in it the awareness of the person making the assertion This is long argument which will not be readily surrendered by those who would prefer to have the responsiveness and responsibility of carbon chains.

Wisdom then, lies in the establishment of abstractions which will predict accurately the patterns of existence. How this is accomplished is arguable; if it is by conscious ratiocination, in the same way that debating is carried out in school clubs, it is closer to a kind of arguable programming than we might wish; but that description of it seems to me to omit an important component and thus fail by insufficiency.

# # #

Previous Essay / Next Essay / Table of Contents