How can we make sense of it all – the cynicism, arrogance and perpetual noise that is becoming ever more pervasive in our culture.
We live in strange times. Despite have access to almost unlimited information at our fingertips, we remain confused and overwhelmed.
Who am I to believe?
Who am I to trust?
The increasing sophistication of technology becomes anxiety inducing without the insight on how to use it to live well or enhance our wellbeing.
It is like we are drowning in a sea of facts without ability to know what is really important. These problems of discernment and sound judgement stem from the failure of our culture to adequately differentiate between knowledge and wisdom.
Although these two terms seem similar at first glance, it would be a mistake to conflate them.
Knowledge: Technical Know-How
Knowledge refers to one’s understanding and mastery over a subject and a certain set of facts. This can be acquired in school, training or other forms of education. Someone who is knowledgeable in a particular field has acquired a specific set of skills and has the capability of coming to conclusions about a given subject area.
However, just because an individual has acquired mastery over these facts doesn’t imply that they are able to make wise judgements about how to use them. We all know examples of those who have a high degree of intelligence but no basic ‘common sense.’ This often leaves us baffled or scratching our heads. Furthermore, intelligence says nothing about one’s ethical or moral foundations. Someone who is a brilliant student can lack kindness and compassion.
Scientific knowledge and technological advancements have given us modern humans great power and control over the natural world. However, without the wisdom to accompany them, these advances have been used towards destructive ends. Building nuclear weapons, addicting consumers through digital media and expediting environmental destruction are all consequences of using technology to satisfy self-centered and egotistical goals.
Wisdom: Perspective, Character and Judgement
Wisdom is more than the acquisition of merely technical skills. It involves using perspective and discernment to apply one’s unique skills in specific circumstances. Moreover, it requires one to acquire virtues working towards mastering the art of living. Wisdom can’t be learned in textbooks but rather by actively participating and engaging in the world. That is to say it must be embodied in one’s character and disposition.
Through experimentation, experience and trial and error one is able to learn from their mistakes and strive to be in the right relationship to both themselves and others. Wisdom enables us to cut through alienation, self-deception and enhance our connectedness to the world around us.
The Long and Winding Road
So how do we attain wisdom?
This has long been the role of religions and spiritual traditions. Religious figures such as Jesus, Confucius or the Buddha etc. were exemplars who an individual could aspire to in search for truth, beauty and goodness.
In a secular society however, I think the humanities and liberal arts (i.e., literature, history, philosophy) can offer a means to contemplate the big moral and ethical questions of our time. These subjects provide insight into different ideas, cultures and perspectives offering the learner to consider what it is like to ‘be in someone else’s shoes.’ They provide collective insights into what it means to be human both in the past, and in our current day and age. The humanities also enable us to look at the prevailing social norms and customs of our society with a critical lens. Honest and respectful discussion about the values can inspire empathy, understanding and greater co-operation.
Not all problems are technical in nature. Solutions to complex problems often require shifts in our perspectives or value structures, namely changes in how we see the world. This means that we cannot rely only on scientific advancements for the pressing global issues we face but also need shared wisdom and distributed sense making.
The path towards wisdom varies from person to person. It can not be bought or learned through persuasive yet deceptive self-help gurus. Not every answer to our questions can be found on Google.
Wisdom requires work, action and perseverance.
More importantly, it can only be found within.