“Whoever sees the web of cause and effect, sees the way”–mahàhatthipadopamasutta The Great Elephant Footprint Sutra
In this post I want to share some of my recent thoughts about the nature of wisdom. This article is fairly dense and long, and some of the ideas definitely need to be developed more. With this in mind, I’d encourage you to actively challenge my thesis and post your thoughts in the comments below.
First a Definition
Since wisdom is such a vague term that is used in many ways I’d like to begin by clarifying what I mean by wisdom.
To me, wisdom means being able to make sound decisions about practical life scenarios. Specifically, wise people are sensitive to a problems complexity and lack of structure and combine this sensitivity with an understanding of their own limitations. In addition, they have an equally distinctive capacity for empathy and are able to process the specific emotional and motivation cues of the people involved in a given situation.
With this definition in mind, I’d now like to present my hypothesis about wisdom.
My Wisdom Hypothesis: Wisdom results from an ability to distinguish between a large number of possibilities for what a situation means. Wise people draw on a huge array of knowledge about practical life events, and this knowledge enables them to make sound judgments. In technical terms we can say that their judgments contain more information than the judgments of most people, because their judgments are based on a deeper understanding of the structure of cause and effect that governs events in the world.
In the remainder of this post I will try and defend this hypothesis. First, I will present an example of a light-detector which will highlight the concept of discrimination. Then, I will discuss the idea of a web of knowledge. Finally, I will try and explore some practical tips for cultivating wisdom.
The Light Detector Example
I’d like you to consider the following thought experiment taken from an influential paper on consciousness by the psychiatrist Giulio Tononi:
You are facing a blank screen that is alternately on and off, and you have been instructed to say “light” when the screen turns on and “dark” when it turns off. A photodiode—a simple light-sensitive device—has also been placed in front of the screen. It contains a sensor that responds to light with an increase in current and a detector connected to the sensor that says “light” if the current is above a certain threshold and “dark” otherwise….When you distinguish between the screen being on or off, you have the subjective experience of seeing light or dark. The photodiode can also distinguish between the screen being on or off, but presumably it does not have a subjective experience of light and dark. What is the key difference between you and the photodiode?
According to Tononi, the key difference has to do with the number of alternatives that you rule out when you decide whether the screen is light or dark. When the blank screen turns on, the photodiode only has to distinguish between two alternatives: either the screen is ‘light’ or it is ‘dark’. When you look at the screen, on the other hand, not only are you distinguishing between light and dark, you are also perceiving whether or not the screen contains color, motion, objects and a whole host of other visual features.
This is significant because it means that your judgement contains a lot more information than the light-detectors. Because you have had to rule out so many alternatives about what the screen is not, we can learn a lot more by listening to your response than by looking at how the light-detector responded– no matter how we program the light-detector we can never learn about motion, color, or objects.
The light-detector example is important because the principals that are at work here bear a direct analogy to the differences that make people wise.
I’d like to argue that what makes someone wise is their ability to distinguish between a large number of possibilities for what a situation means. In contrast to an average person, who may have a relatively small number of experiences to draw upon, wise people have huge amount of practical life experience from which they can draw sound judgments. Just as our increased capacity to discriminate between alternatives enables us to perceive more than a light-detector, so a wise persons superior knowledge about practical life events enables them to make better judgments than most people.
But how does someone develop wisdom?
Given this framework about what wisdom is, I think we can make a number of deductions about how someone can develop wisdom.
The first thing to note is that wisdom is highly dependent upon the number of experience you have.
The ability to discriminate between many alternatives, and deduce a lot of information from a particular scenario, is predicated on the number of experiences that you have to draw upon. This is a possible explanation for why wisdom seems to be directly linked to age. The reality is that in general older people have been exposed to a greater number, and a greater range of life experiences than their younger counterparts. This, of course, means that they can draw from a greater pool of knowledge when having to make important judgments.
In addition to the sheer number of experiences that someone has, it seems that the variety of experiences is important too.
Although a fifty year undoubtedly has had more experiences than a twenty-five year old, the twenty-five year old may be able to make up for the deficit by seeking out diverse experiences. Specifically, experiences like travelling the world, experimenting with a number of jobs, majoring in more than one subject, or creating a startup, would probably lead to an accumulation of more wisdom than simply working the same office job for an equivalent length of time. It’s not that the number of experiences is different, it’s the variety that counts.
One way of thinking about this distinction is by imagining our experiences as forming a web of knowledge. When we add to our existing knowledge by having novel experiences, we extend the range of our web, reaching into previously uncharted territories. In contrast, when we have experiences that are similar to what we have experienced in the past, we merely strengthen the existing connections in our web without gaining the ability to see into new territory. To be wise we must maximize the size of this web, while still keeping the internal connections relatively dense.
Strengthening the Web
As a final thought, I want to consider some ways that we can increase our capacity for wisdom by strengthening our web of knowledge. Three thoughts come to mind:
First, it seems that to some extent our web of knowledge can be grown through practical training.
In our culture, counselors and psychiatrists are often associated with having a high degree of wisdom. Although to some extent this may be caused by innate personality traits, it seems equally possible that a lot of their wisdom is a result of the their specific career training. I do not have too much experience in the field, but it seems likely that practices such as emphatic listening, developing an understanding of the biology behind peoples behaviors, and learning about therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy can increase your wisdom.
Second, it seems that wisdom can be cultivated by actively seeking out diverse life experiences.
Most people would agree that a foreign-diplomat who had traveled the world learning about a diverse range of cultures would be better equipped to make life decision than an equally intelligent person who had spent twenty years doing the same job. Of course, the latter would likely have a greater capacity for wise decision within the specific domain of their work, but in general the diplomat would have better judgement across a range of life decisions.
Third, there seems to be a personality attribute to being wise.
Having a sizable web of knowledge is probably necessary for wisdom, but it may not be sufficient. Specifically, a close-minded personality may be destructive for accessing the full range of stored experiences. A mind-set of openness, and a willingness to savor, and then draw upon events from the past most likely helps with being wise.
Undoubtedly wisdom is a complicated and multifaceted phenomenon. But nevertheless is seems that by identifying the traits that make someone wise we can put ourselves in a better position to cultivate a wise disposition.
What are your thoughts about what makes someone wise? Are you convinced by my analysis, or do you disagree? Please share you thoughts in the comments below.