The Search for Wisdom in the Information Age

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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.


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The Empty Promises of Consumerism

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With Black Friday in recent memory and Christmas shopping right around the corner, what better time to look at the issues of consumerism in our society.

Modern advertising is rather peculiar. If you pay close attention, you’ll realize that many of the commercials you come across don’t actually tell you much about the product that is being sold. The advertisement doesn’t present reasons or rational arguments as to why you should buy the product. Rather it appeals to our deep-seated emotions and desires.

It speaks to our universal longings to be loved, to have close and genuine connections, to be acknowledged, respected and to be authentic.

Let’s take a minute to look at this perfume commercial for Coeur Battant by Louis Vuitton.

Notice how the commercial doesn’t tell you much about the product being sold. What does it smell like? What is the price point? How does it compare to similar brands on the market?

Nonetheless, what the advertisement is conveying to the consumer is a certain image. An image of beauty, attractiveness and desirability from others – namely from other good looking men. With this perfume, and only with this perfume, one can surely achieve the confidence, recognition and status we’ve all desired. Right?

According to recent data, 46% of parents with children under 18 and 48% of those with existing credit card debt are willing to take on more debt in the 2020 Christmas holiday season.  What can explain our irrational behaviour as we wait in long lines to buy the newest products on the market or spend far beyond our means on stuff we cannot afford? Why are we never content with what we own?

 What is actually being sold to us?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

To understand the intentions and messages behind modern advertising, we need to look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom of the pyramid are our basic physiological needs such as food, shelter, clothing and at the top lies self-actualization. One must first satisfy their lower level needs before they begin working up the pyramid.

Maslow’s theory was that once we meet our basic we naturally aspire towards higher developmental needs such as: meaning, purpose, love, friendship etc. The crucial point made by Maslow was that there needs to be a healthy balance between our material, psychological and self-fulfillment needs. 

The famous Biblical passage suggesting that we “cannot live on bread alone” speaks exactly to this idea. Humans require more than just physiological nourishment and material things to truly thrive.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The issue is that marketers are selling the idea that buying a product such as luxury clothing or fashion brands (ie. clothing\psychological needs) can fulfill our longing for another higher-level need such as love and belonging or esteem needs.  Philosopher Alain De Botton explains this confusion clearly.

Nearly every advert one now cares to consider is selling us one thing while, beneath the surface, hinting at the appeasement of another higher need. It may look like one is buying a bag or a pair of shoes, a stay in a hotel or a kind of drink – but really what is tickling us unconsciously is a secret promise of spiritual goods we ache for a great deal more than we ever do for material possessions: a need for love and meaning, connection and calm, understanding and freedom

Alain De Botton, The Purpose of Advertising

Character Develops Through Repeated Action

Now this is not to say we can not or should not enjoy the pleasures that luxury products bring us. It is rather noting that we should not be deluded into thinking that consuming an item can necessarily satisfy our deep yearnings for psychological wellbeing.

It is easy to get trapped into thinking our issues stem from not having things rather from our own flaws in character and disposition. We can not become mature or become a more admirable or respectable person by purchasing fancy sports cars.

Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

What are we really hinting at when we purchase a luxury sports car – perhaps it is our wish for status, admiration and recognition?

Nothing worthwhile comes easy, and virtue or character can not be bought. As Aristotle claimed, character traits can only be acquired through repeated action and habit. One becomes courageous by performing courageous acts just as someone is considered honest when they consistently act honestly in all circumstances.

Yes, we can enjoy material things and consumer products, but there is a whole other world of possibilities outside of mindless consumerism. These are the ideals written about by the great writers, poets and religions – of transcendence, love, community and meaning.

Whatever we consume ultimately perishes, but who we become, who we are, can last forever.  

So, as we get flooded with commercials and advertisements over the holiday season, we can all be a little more skeptical about what is actually being sold.  

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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A Life of Virtue Turns One: Some Thoughts About the Current Crisis

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When I started this blog a year ago, I didn’t really have a clear idea on what direction it would go or how it would evolve.

I was inspired by thinkers and organizations who were applying philosophical ideas to the many issues we face in our modern societies. This led me down the rabbit hole to discover channels such as Alain De Botton’s School of Life, Rebel Wisdom as well as John Vervaeke’s Awakening from the Meaning Crisis series.

It is exciting to see communities emerging like The Stoa who facilitate dialogues with a wide range of unique thinkers and practitioners trying to make sense of an increasingly complex world.

A World in Peril

We live in strange times.

Very strange times.

There is a general skepticism, made particularly salient during the COVID-19 pandemic, that our social, economic and political institutions are not well suited to deal with many of the issues that we face in the 21st century.

Some have questioned if the current path we are on as a society is desirable or even sustainable.

Do we have the right ‘tool kit’ and systems in place to deal with the many global problems and existential threats we face?

To name a few: 

As a society it seems like we are running faster and faster into the future without a clear direction of where we are going.

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In a highly competitive globalized environment that prioritizes status and consumption, short-term thinking takes precedence. We lose sight of the consequences of our actions that extend past our limited horizon.

These issues are compounded by our broken information ecosystem in which it is getting more and more difficult to have consensus on basic facts. Reality thus becomes filtered down to us through politicized news media or our personalized social media feeds.

We are forced to ask, who is truly looking out for our best interests?

The Need for Philosophy in the Modern Age

In times of deep uncertainty, philosophical inquiry can be used to help us understand some of the problems we face as a society more deeply.

It may not provide concrete solutions or answers, but it does force us to slow down and think.

Ideas matter. They are like the glasses we wear to interpret the world around us.

This is why critical thinking is so important. In an age of information overload and false information, we can turn to the ancient wisdom of Socrates.

Socrates famously said “I know one thing – that I know nothing.” This idea, coined as Socratic ignorance, helps us resist the temptation to jump to conclusions or conform to the popular beliefs of the time. Socrates asks us to rigorously question and examine our beliefs, compare and contrast different viewpoints and engage in honest good faith dialogue with others.

This is how we find truth and cultivate wisdom.

The American sociologist and education scholar Peter W. Cookson Jr. argues that this type of multidimensional and critical thinking is needed to address many of the interconnected crises we face in the 21st century. He notes that our education systems should be transformed to promote interdisciplinary learning rather than teaching subjects in rigid silos or compartments. The industrial education model of memorization, conformity and standardized testing in no longer sufficient for the modern era.

Rather flexibility, creativity and the ability to look at problems from multiple different angles should be prioritized. In sum, we need to learn how to navigate through complexity.

As the challenges facing the globe become increasingly complex, our frames of reference must be flexible, expansive, and adaptive …

By looking at a challenge from multiple points of view, we are more likely to arrive at a realistic, effective solution.

What Would Socrates Say?
Peter W. Cookson Jr. , Educational Leadership
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The Role of the Individual and the Need to Look Inward

The future ahead may seem daunting.

We may be inclined to cling our existing beliefs, support a certain political ideology or be attached to our personal grand narrative of how society must change.

Technical or political solutions may be necessary, but we should first do our own homework. Look inwards and take ownership and responsibility of our lives first. Examine your own beliefs and biases, and prioritize the truth rather than the desire to be ‘right’.

As the Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire noted, we must first “cultivate one’s own garden.”

Only then can we learn to be a proactive rather than reactive.

Robert Pirsig eloquently reflects on this idea in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  

Programs of a political nature are important end products of social quality that can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right. The social values are right only if the individual values are right. The place to improve the world is first in one’s heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert Pirsig

 Going forward in this next year in the blog, I hope to continue to explore how philosophy can be a useful tool in fostering critical self-reflection and helping us make sense of a seemingly chaotic world.  

I aspire to work towards the virtue of humility, to be open to new ideas and perspectives. To be able to examine my own belief systems and change my mind on an issue if the evidence requires me to do so.

Thank all for following the blog, and I hope you’ve been enjoying the content.

Here’s to another year of writing and philosophical inquiry.

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