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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A Stoic Approach to Fear

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Seneca: A Stoic Life

One of the things I admire about the Stoic philosophers is that they embodied the wisdom that they preached. Seneca, one of the three notable Stoics (along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus), used the philosophy of Stoicism to navigate the turmoil and uncertainties during his life.

Although he maintained a high status in ancient Rome as a politician and financial clerk, Seneca was forced into exile by Claudius, and ordered to commit suicide by his former student – the tyrannical emperor Nero. 

In a typical Stoic fashion, on his death bed, Seneca urges his friends, family and followers not to fear death. Dying with dignity and courage, he argues that it is only through death and the ephemeral nature of our existence which gives life meaning. It is not the duration of one’s life that is of significance Seneca claims, but rather the endeavours and meaningful pursuits that one engages which makes life worthwhile.   

 In his consolation to his friend Marcia over the death of her son, Seneca writes that we should always be prepared from the unknown, directly confront our fears and cherish our existence. Nothing should be taken for granted.

That person has lost their children: you too, can lose yours; that person received sentence of death: your innocence too, stands under the hammer. This is the fallacy that takes us in and makes us weak while we suffer misfortunes that we never foresaw that we could suffer. The person who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.

Seneca, On Consolation to Marcia

Letters from a Stoic

One of the more notable works left behind by Seneca is the Letters from a Stoic. Near the end of his life, Seneca wrote 124 letters to his friend Lucilius offering philosophical insight and consolation, highlighting many of the key themes in Stoic philosophy.

My favourite in this collection is Letter 13 – On Groundless Fears.  In this letter, Seneca encourages Lucilius to practice resilience providing  questions to consider when assessing the validity of his fears.

Many of our fears Seneca notes are unfounded. We can not control the external world, but we can control our interpretation of it. Much of what we fear are fabrications produced by our mind which, if properly evaluated and critiqued, have no basis in reality.

 Even if unfavourable events do come to fruition, we do not know what the future holds. It may perhaps be a blessing in disguise.

To expand and identify these key ideas these I created a graphic which summarizes the questions and maxims Seneca urges us to consider when we are faced with anxiety or fear. In the thought bubbles are direct quotes from Seneca’s letter which speak to these concepts.

If you want to listen to an audio version of these letters I highly recommend Tim Ferris’ Tao of Seneca.  

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The Awesomeness of Awe

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I can still vividly remember the crisp morning air, and the mountain range that faded far into the horizon. Miles away from the busyness and obnoxious sounds of the big city, I was on a vacation in Banff, Alberta.

It was on a hike in beautiful Lake Louise where the anxieties and trivialities of modern life faded into the abyss. Gazing at the crystal blue water, I was filled with a sense of wonder and reverence for the beauty of the natural landscape.

We often fail to find the right words to describe these temporary encounters with the sublime, however one term that does come to mind is ‘awe’.

Be it the grandeur and beauty of a medieval cathedral or the peaceful solitude of spending time in alone in nature, many of us have had moments which leave us speechless. Moments which jolt us in to the present moment and connect us with something greater than ourselves.

It is only after these experiences we can more deeply appreciate the seemingly esoteric language of the great poets and mystics. For the transcendentalist writers (Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson) of the 19th century, the divine was to be found in the natural world.

As Emerson famously writes in his essay Nature,

Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I become a particle of God.

Photo by Philip Ackermann on Pexels.com

So, what exactly is this feeling of awe, and why does humanity yearn for these ecstatic events? 

While the moments and events which elicit awe differ from person to person, the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner classify two key attributes which one feels during an experience of awe – the need for accommodation and vastness.

Need for Accommodation

Breath taking moments of awe shatter our existing mental models of the world. They force us to shift our perspectives to accommodate these new cognitive paradigms

This temporarily puts a pause our rote automatic thinking we have been accustomed to in our adult lives. We are filled with a sense of wonder, and as Michael Pollan puts it, “precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself.”’    

Vastness

Looking at earth miles away in space, astronauts have reported that seeing the planet from this vantage point is a highly transformative, and one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. From this perspective, one reveres in the beauty of our planet, is overwhelmed by its vastness and is more deeply connected to all the species which inhabit earth.

As Yuri Artyushkin from the Russian space program notes,

The feeling of unity is not simply an observation. With it comes a strong sense of compassion and concern for the state of our planet and the effect humans are having on it…. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.

                                                                

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Philosopher Frank White coined the term the ‘overview effect’ to define the shift in awareness and perspective astronauts describe when they glance as the earth from space.

Overwhelmed by emotions and feelings of self-transcendence – many space explorers note that words are inadequate to describe what their feeling.

Our attention shifts from inwards towards the broader environment evoking a religious or spiritual sense of connectedness to the outside world.

This is akin to the mind of a child, a truly ‘Zen-like’ experience.

Humility

While connecting more deeply to the external environment, our egotistical self-interests seem a little less important. We feel small in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos. Consequently, studies have demonstrated that feelings of awe are associated with pro-social behaviour including greater altruism, and an overall increase in well-being.

In a time where our individualistic society increasingly drives us towards narcissistic tendencies, perhaps a bit more awe is just the right medicine we need.