With all the problems in the world, most astute observers would agree: we need a revolution in wisdom – and quick! Wisdom can create a sea-change in our attitudes, values, daily activities, overall goals, and indeed the entire trajectory of our homes, communities, institutions, nation, and world. Knowledge and wisdom are fairly complex concepts; the advantage Values of the Wise offers you is that it is explored from many different angles and through the eyes of many unique thinkers, past and present. In this blog, Jason Merchey interviews two experts on knowledge and wisdom: Copthorne Macdonald and Nicholas Maxwell, Ph.D.
Below I present an excerpt from the chapter of the same name, from the 2017 book entitled Values and Ethics: from Living Room to Boardroom. I transcribed and packaged twenty shows to compose the book. It’s a beautiful, assertive, and informative 480-page book, for sale here and on Amazon.com for $17.95. Many values, such as liberty, character education, justice, progressivism, and business ethics are given excellent treatment. Signed copies make a great gift, and are a great addition to any impressive library. It is “a great exploration of wisdom, virtue, and values for our day,” said Tom Morris, Ph.D., Author of True Success, and If Aristotle Ran General Motors; former professor of philosophy at Notre Dame; founder of the Morris Institute for Human Values
As well, Values and Ethics: from Living Room to Boardroom is the title of the talk radio show I created and recorded for about two years there, on the then-largest Internet-based talk radio station, World Talk Radio. There are almost 85 hour-long shows (interviews on topics relevant to values and ethics, basically) and they are available for free here. Other topics include Einstein, Corporate Social Responsibility, America Since 9/11, Entrepreneurship, Applying Philosophy to Your Life, and nearly 80 others. Experts are interviewed in a fresh and somewhat Socratic style. Considering the dialogues on values and ethics are free, they are a great resource – if I do say so myself.
The chapter presented in part below, as with the other 19 in the book, is peppered with quotes about wisdom that enlighten, inspire, and intrigue. For a complete presentation of the quotations on wisdom that are an integral part of the awesome Wisdom Archive, type the word wisdom in or simply click here. The two guests are quite capable and very unique. Nicholas Maxwell, Ph.D. is a philosopher who has devoted much of his working life to arguing that there is an urgent need to bring about a revolution in academia so that it seeks and promotes wisdom and does not just acquire knowledge. For over thirty years, he taught philosophy of science at University College London, where he is now Emeritus Reader. He has written 15 books, many of which deal with the relationship between knowledge and wisdom (and science). Copthorne Macdonald (deceased in 2016) was a writer, independent scholar, and former communication systems engineer. He has written extensively about the nature of reality (including consciousness and mind), the development of wisdom, the global problematique, and the challenge of creating a sustainable future. He published a number of books, one of which is just chock-full of quotations on wisdom (called Toward Wisdom); I also have Matters of Consequence on my bookshelf. I just read Getting a Life. You would profit from punching their names into the Wisdom Archive and seeing the vast and trenchant quotations on wisdom attributed to them. It was a sad day the world lost Cop, that’s for sure. It’s sometimes sad to read this interview. Happily, we still have access to the very complete and accessible Wisdom Page he created for almost two decades prior to his death.
And now, the excerpt (I am the interviewer, and my initials are J.M., and I also bolded the words that are about values, virtues, and ethics):
JM: So, today we are investigating what turns out to be one of Nicholas’s “life’s work type of ideas,” and I assume or believe that Cop, you have a lot of concordance with his aims – namely, that is that scientific knowledge and technology have led to much that is useful and benign, but also, have spawned many unintended consequences, negative outcomes, quandaries, unpredicted dangers, and unsustainable situations. Do think that’s true?
CM: Exactly. We’ve got this amazing capability; our knowledge has allowed us to do all kinds of things, but it hasn’t always been guided by wisdom. Actually, that’s an understatement!
JM: Nicholas, tell us something about what’s so interesting about this idea of wisdom being disjointed from knowledge?
NM: Okay, well, we have this long tradition of rational inquiry devoted to improving knowledge and technological “know-how,” going back to the Scientific Revolution starting in the 16th century. Of course, the original idea was that this was going to promote human welfare; the basic idea being that first you acquire knowledge, and then you apply it to help solve social problems. If our concern is really to promote human welfare and to help us create a better world, then the problems we need to solve are, fundamentally, problems of living. What in the end helps us achieve what is of value in life is what we do, or refrain from doing. If we’re going to tackle this rationally, what we ought to have is a kind of inquiry that gives absolute priority to articulating our problems of living, and proposing and critically assessing possible solutions. That is, things that we might do – policies, political programs, etc.
JM: I hear what you’re saying, and I think that is going to be one of the main thrusts of this program. But let me interrupt you to define a few terms right off the bat. Can you define knowledge, and then I will toss it to Cop to define wisdom?
NM: Well, philosophers have been debating What is knowledge? for a long time! I rather share Karl Popper’s antipathy toward thinking that definitions are critical. But, I suppose, roughly what one means by knowledge is our best attempt at determining how things really are; what the facts are. Of course, if we’re talking about scientific knowledge, it also involves explanation: understanding why things happen as they do. On top of that, understanding, as well – these are all parts of the scientific enterprise. There is a sort of distinction between knowing that something is the case, and knowing how to do something.
JM: Ok. So, suffice it to say, building a nuclear bomb involves a lot of in-depth knowledge.
JM: Okay. Cop, can you say a bit about how wisdom is differentiated from the type of knowledge that could be used for anything from determining how to plant corn to understanding how to design a city; from building a toothbrush to building an atomic bomb?
CM: My perspective on it is that knowledge is sort of “fact-oriented,” and wisdom is more “meaning-oriented.” So, wisdom comes at a set of facts from various perspectives, and from a grounding in certain values, and speaks to what this really means, and determines the context involved. I see it as a kind of meta-knowledge; a “meaning-centered way” of looking at the facts.
JM: Okay, so if it takes facts and knowledge to construct a nuclear bomb, how would wisdom (phronesis, in Greek) be different than the theory and raw knowledge of the correct method to produce a nuclear bomb (techne in Greek)?
CM: Well, we can consider the context of the well-being of humanity, and wisdom would look at the construction of a nuclear bomb from that perspective and ask many different questions about it to try to get a sense of what the meaning would be for humanity.
JM: Such as, when to use it, or whether we ought to use it?
NM: The way I see wisdom has emerged out of my thinking about the academic enterprise and science: that it is the capacity and the active desire to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others (realize: to both “make real” and “create what is of value”). This apprehension or experience of what is of value takes into account both the active part of research and inquiry, and also what is often called “the more contemplative.” It includes knowledge and technological know-how – at least those parts that are of benefit to people.
JM: Mm-hmm. Has it always been like this, Nicholas, or when humans started to discover novel ideas and new tools and unique ways of relating to each other – say, inventing the wheel – was there something about inventing the wheel that left us in a big quandary or created significant unintended consequences? Or, rather, would you characterize science and technology as kind of “reaching a fever-pitch” as of late, and thereby has entered, often, the realm of the absurd and the stupid?
NM: I think there has always been this ambivalent aspect to the whole thing. I mean, the ancient Greeks, by philosophy (which is what we would now call inquiry) they mean, “the love of wisdom.” On the other hand, someone such as Archimedes, who helped to develop weapons and defense at (I think) Syracuse; or more recently, Galileo was eager to have the telescope used for military purposes; and Leonardo, as we know, built fortresses and was concerned with weapons. So there has always been this phenomenon wherein science needs patronage, or funding, and the people who have money are powerful and want weapons!
JM: Acknowledged. Well, let me read a quotation to you, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events, is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest. Indeed, there is a danger that precisely in the multiplicity of his knowledge, he will lose sight of what is essential. …so the wise man will seek to acquire the best possible knowledge of events, but always without becoming dependent upon this knowledge; to recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.”
JM: Cop, can you help me out, here?
CM: Well, this ties in with what Nicholas was saying about knowledge being a part of wisdom. It also ties into what Abraham Maslow found with his concept of self-actualized persons – if you understand the problem very, very deeply, the chances are you will know what the solution is.
NM: It’s always struck me as essential that improving one’s understanding of the problem and reformulating a problem is absolutely essential to going about tackling it in the best possible way. It’s one of the things that education tends not to emphasize because in an exam, for example, you can’t say, “This is the wrong question; it should be formulated like this;” you won’t get very good marks if you do that. Even turning anguish or trouble into an articulated problem is essential, though often very difficult to do, and something education doesn’t teach us to discover how to do.
JM: I am interested to learn how you two believe America’s educational system is designed, functioning, and how cognizant of wisdom it is. And if the answer is “not very well,” what can we do about that? I realize that we are from different countries (as Cop is Canadian and Nicholas is English), but perhaps we could look at America, and then compare and contrast it with the other two – or “Western education” in general, if possible. Is the educational system related to the social problems and the dysfunction that (at least, American) society is experiencing in many ways? First, let me offer a quotation for your consumption:
“It is no longer enough to be smart — all the technological tools in the world add meaning and value only if they enhance our core values, the deepest part of our heart. Acquiring knowledge is no guarantee of practical, useful application. Wisdom implies a mature integration of appropriate knowledge, a seasoned ability to filter the inessential from the essential” (Doc Childre & Deborah Rozman)
JM: Nicholas, please tell us what the educational system in the United States and perhaps also in Great Britain is like, and what that means. Are knowledge and wisdom particularly prized?
NM: I’ve just published an article called, “Philosophy Seminars for Five-Year-Olds.” After 30 years of trying to persuade my colleagues and various professors, I figured, maybe I need to start with the five-year-olds! The idea is that education ought to have at its core a sort-of “discussion seminar” wherein kids are given an opportunity to talk about problems and issues and concerns – things that interest them. The role of the teacher is to ensure that not everyone talks at once and that the others listen – that something like cooperative rationality of the exploration of ideas and problems gets going. And, that this would be central to the curriculum. Out of this would emerge, on the one hand, things like science; and on the other, from the storytelling could emerge things like literature, drama, and history. Every year, as the cohort grows, depending on what their interests are and what they’ve been exploring and discussing, it would influence what they learned in other areas— and be bi-directional. I don’t know whether anything quite like this goes on anywhere; I talked to my local primary school and the head teacher said, “Oh yes, we do all that already.” But I wasn’t absolutely certain.
JM: Cop, let me ask you to speak to this, but go back a little further and discuss problems that developed societies face, and which the entire planet has to deal with; what’s going on, and how is that relevant to our educational system?
CM: Well, the list is certainly a long one! I mean, one thing that has been in the headlines recently is that we’re reaching what they call “peak oil” – meaning we’re not apt to get more barrels out of the ground in the future than we are at the moment, and yet we’ve got a great increase in demand coming from developing countries like China and India. Sweden has decided they are going to get completely off fossil fuels in 15 years; this is a national program. I would say this is definitely some wise people making some wise decisions.
JM: Unfortunately, in North America here we’ve been lagging behind – as several people have put it, “trying to keep the party going.” There are all sorts of environmental problems with species being destroyed right and left, pollution being widespread, and there are many others. Violence and poverty and such are probably also related in some way to how we as societies value education and wisdom. I’m recalling that the Latin word from which education is derived is educare, which means, “to draw out” or “to elicit.” So, I think education, at its best, is akin to what Zora Neal Hurston said about it: “Learning without wisdom is a load of books on a donkey’s back.” Or, when Roger Lewin noted that, “Too often, we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.”
JM: These ideas are reminiscent of what Nicholas recently said; though it sounds absurd at first glance to take time away from teaching children about numbers and letters to encourage philosophy, such “drawing out” of children – not unlike alternative modes of education such as Montessori or Waldorf – can lead to a method of inner-searching that can lead to adolescents who are more capable of entering into the formal operational stage of cognitive development according to developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, and adults who can more easily access wisdom within and without.
Indeed, skills and abilities such as metacognition, critical thinking, true dialogue, high-level analysis, and creative problem-solving cannot easily be taught the way that arithmetic can; it needs to be culled and coaxed and nurtured. Some people, like Einstein, might be able to reach astounding levels of cognition pretty much because of native intelligence, but, there really is no excuse for young people growing up to believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old, or that democratic socialism is synonymous with “Soviet-style Communism.”
The average child watches 20,000 television commercials a year, I believe. In contrast, they probably are taught to reason and question less than 10% of the time. Getting rid of music, recess, and art is certainly of no help. A paucity of character education as part and parcel of the curriculum certainly doesn’t help. Society is like a moving train, and to just inculcate “the Three Rs” in kids – and with lackluster results, no less! – keeps us merely moving in the same direction. Reading and writing and math are necessary but not sufficient for the kind of progress that we sorely need. Finland’s educational system is top-tier, and they are smaller, more homogeneous, more humane, more socialistic than America is. We should search for wisdom in that system. As well, psychologist Howard Gardner reports that the best preschools in the world are products of the Reggio Emilia region of Italy – and suggests we import much of the technique, context, and values that the study of them yields.
NM: Yes. I want to add to what Cop was talking about because I think one of the really serious problems we face is global warming. There are these scenarios which predict a sort-of “runaway effect,” a result of which temperatures would rise not just 2°, but 5° (or some people are even suggesting 10°). This would be devastating for the poorest people in the world, and if all the ice on Greenland or Antarctica melts, the level of the seas would rise somewhere between 50 and 80 meters. It’s almost inconceivable what may be happening, and it’s really underway, but were not really mobilizing as a society.
This is absolutely what we’re discussing here: How has this come about? Well, it has been made possible by science and technology, which made possible industrialization and massive population growth; the two things together have produced and are producing global warming. Of course this problem needs knowledge; it needs new technology; but we need to live in new ways.
JM: Cop, do you think it’s possible to create a new version of the Manhattan Project (based this time on wisdom) to usher in the awakening we will need to grasp and solve many of our modern problems?
CM: All three of us are interested in knowledge and wisdom and values, and one of the problems here is that so many institutions are organized around sets of values that are not benefiting the masses, and certainly are not going to benefit my grandchildren and future generations – if there are any. Education is relevant; you were talking about “the Three Rs” and so-forth; so much of present education is in service of a set of values which you would not call the values of the wise. Rather, they are in the service of maintaining systems which are basically destructive to the long-term well-being of humankind. One of the symptoms of this is certainly global warming; this is a result of certain people who have the power wanting to “keep the party going.”
…the knowledge and wisdom discussion continues….
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