Friday, May 21, 2010

Still Defining Wisdom


Seeking a Modern Definition of Wisdom

By John Taylor; 2010 May 21, Azamat 04, 167 BE

In this series we have treated wisdom as beauty of the soul and as a kind of love of knowledge that ultimately only God can command. We looked at Baha'u'llah's definition of wisdom as "to fear God, to know Him, and to recognize His Manifestations;" this wisdom, He says, is gained by detachment and pious behaviour. (Summons, 5.113, p. 233) By contrast, the definition of wisdom in the Wikipedia seems rather mundane and utilitarian. Here, wisdom is how well a person's use of knowledge would bear up under a cost-benefit analysis.

"Wisdom is a deep understanding of people, things, events or situations, empowering the ability to choose or act to consistently produce the optimum results with a minimum of time and energy. Wisdom is the ability to optimally (effectively and efficiently) apply perceptions and knowledge and so produce the desired results. Wisdom is comprehension of what is true or right coupled with optimum judgment as to action." (

What the Wiki is doing here is leaning towards a different kind of wisdom. The Greeks had two words for wisdom, sophia and phronesis. Baha'u'llah's definition leans towards wisdom as sophia, the female attributes of God, God as loving, nurturing mother. If you are wise, you will become a lover of God's holy Manifestation, and follow His Law. The Wikipedia definition leans towards phronesis, practical wisdom. Ultimately, if everybody embraced sophia, we would produce the "desired results" consistently. But phronesis describes a practical ability that can be dealt with without referring to God. I will discuss Aristotle's ideas about phronesis in an upcoming essay.

My search for definitions of wisdom has turned up many such concepts from older sources but no new ones. We seem little concerned with wisdom, or at least defining it, in this day and age. So let me offer my attempt.

Definition: Wisdom is paying attention to statistical indicators. Most definitions of wisdom were made up before statistics was invented, but that is basically what most resolutions of practical wisdom end up as, simply acting in such a way that if millions of others do the same thing, the greater number would be better off. Wisdom, then, is acting as if studies based on the scientific method make a difference as to how I should behave.

For example, studies indicate that it is unwise to drink out of plastic bottles. If you do, there is a slightly greater chance that your progeny will be born without sexual organs. In the U.S., the number of such births is growing from the hundreds to the thousands every year. If you are beyond childbearing age as we are, well, I still prefer to drink my water out of glass bottles. Just in case. From love of wisdom, call it. Ideally, of course you would live in Japan where the proper authorities banned the worst plastics outright back in the 1990's. But if you are so unfortunate as not to Japanese, if your regulatory overseers are unwise or corrupt, then you must make a conscious decision based on statistical likelihood every time you buy something liquid.

One new way to define a wise decision I gleaned from the postscript of a Michael Crichton novel, State of Fear, notorious for trying to trash global warming. Written before the trickle of evidence became a flood, Crichton's thesis rightly made him a laughing stock. It is a pity that all this brouhaha distracted from a brilliant suggestion he made in the same book for removing the main source of corruption in science. The Wikipedia article on this novel states:

"In Appendix I, Crichton warns both sides of the global warming debate against the politicization of science. Here he provides two examples of the disastrous combination of pseudo-science and politics: the early 20th-century ideas of eugenics (which he directly cites as one of the theories that allowed for the Holocaust) and Lysenkoism." (

He also made an important suggestion. Instead of wasting time and money making study after study for and against an industry or product -- for example, we have seen over the past several decades one study saying wine, coffee or whatever is good for you followed by another that says it is bad, followed by a counter-study that says it will kill you; good, bad, good, bad, in an endless cycle.

We can get off this whole, wasteful, deceitful merry-go-round simply by de-privatizing science.

Wisdom suggests that we go even further than Crichton suggested. Start a scientific regulatory body run by governments, same as now, except be sure that it also handles the licensing of scientists, the publicizing of results, and the funding of laboratories and research. If a company wants to foster research into its industry it can only do so by contributing to that single funding arm. It has little say in what research is done and none about who keeps their job, much less what results come out of the laboratories. If a fruit grower, say, wants to pay a researcher to investigate the fruit it grows, it can but the results cannot be labelled scientific, nor can the researchers call themselves scientists. The slightest suspicion of lost objectivity should end all publicity and funding right away.

License and Regulate Wisdom in Religion

Like science, religion is horribly corrupt. Fanaticism is rampant. Moderate, thinking believers from all faiths can do something about this, though. Why not take steps to regulate matters of faith similar to what Crichton suggested for science? Unite funding for interfaith causes into a single oversight agency. Let it handle whatever affects the reputation of religion in general, as opposed to specific belief systems. If a religious leader denounces another faith group or persecutes a minority, take away the tax-free status of his church or synagogue and strip him of his status as a public figure.

Both John Comenius and Baha'u'llah used the phrase "one common faith" to describe the body of beliefs that everybody, of whatever religious affiliation, agrees is right and true. This interfaith agency should seek to broaden the scope of the One Common Faith, using the argument that statistical studies prove that people live longer, are happier and healthier when they have moderate religious devotion and contacts. This process should gradually lead to the election of democratic legislative body, the World Parliament of Religions.

License and Regulate Wise Leaders in Business and Politics

The same regulation and licensing should apply for all leaders, in every area of human endeavour. Corporate criminal organizations like BP Petroleum should not just have lawsuits to fear. In the event of an accident with loss of life or environmental damage where negligence is suspect, they should immediately lose their licenses as business leaders. Let them fight to prove their innocence so they can become leaders again. If anybody in the entire management team escapes criminal prosecution, send them out as labourers to mop up their own mess before they can work anywhere else.

The same thing should apply to investors. When "accidents" due to negligence occur, their money should be frozen and subject to confiscation. That would make companies like BP far less attractive prospects, bankrupting many even before they can commit a crime.


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