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Why Wisdom Is Not and Cannot Be a “Science”

Some have tried to make the pursuit of wisdom a “scientific” endeavour. That is not going well.

A curiosity of our age is the effort to “naturalize” traditional values, to treat them as an outcome of evolution. Evolution we are told, took us in a slightly different direction from that of the apes but it did not put us in contact with a wisdom beyond this world. There is no such thing.

That conflicts with traditional accounts of wisdom. Wisdom has been seen as different from “knowledge,” “intelligence” or “street smarts.” They are all very useful, of course. But wisdom is a view of the world from a great distance, which enables clarity about the big issues. For example, from Boethius, about 1500 years ago:

Indeed, the condition of human nature is just this; man towers above the rest of creation so long as he realizes his own nature, and when he forgets it, he sinks lower than the beasts. For other living things to be ignorant of themselves, is natural; but for man it is a defect.

The Consolation of Philosophy

In more modern language, human consciousness gives us the freedom to examine our own lives. Boethius (pictured), who was a philosophical guide for centuries in the western world, wrote those words while he was personally awaiting execution by a cruel death.

The concept of huge sacrifice for wisdom isn’t new. Odin, the king of the Norse gods, had to give up his right eye to achieve wisdom. And Odin agreed to the bargain; wisdom was that valuable to him as a ruler.

But very recently, some have tried to make the universal pursuit of wisdom a “scientific” one. They’re not saying that scientists should pursue wisdom personally (who would dispute that?) but that the methods of science should be applied to the pursuit.

Thus, we are informed by Igor Grossmann, associate professor of psychology and director of the Wisdom and Culture Lab at the University of Waterloo in Canada, that “Psychological science can now measure and nurture wisdom, superseding the speculations of philosophy and religion.”

As he says, Grossmann wants to “deconstruct wisdom.” And how is that working out? He organized the Toronto Wisdom Task Force, which resulted in a typical academic thinkfest. For example, we are warned against the pitfalls of our traditional views of wisdom:

➤ “The first was seeing the quality of wisdom as an all-or-none category, primarily inherited or bestowed by nature, a concept known as psychological essentialism.” Actually, most human beings think that wisdom comes from suffering through our mistakes. How many children are born wise? Where on Earth could such a misconception really arise, except at a thinkfest?

➤ “The second pitfall that many behavioural scientists frequently stumble into is the ecological fallacy, in which they equate the individual differences between people or by situation to more general differences across whole groups or over a lifetime.” Yes. That’s generally known as prejudice. But what big contribution is “science” supposed to make to the general awareness that prejudice is a bad thing that harms people?

➤ “The third pitfall concerns re-imagining a desirable characteristic in one’s own image, using one’s personal intuitions, introspections or behaviour as a standard for the trait.” Many of us would call that egotism. But no one thinks that egotism is a path to wisdom.

Then come the clunkers: “Nonetheless, our task force agreed that moral grounding was the first foundational pillar of the common wisdom model in empirical sciences.”

Well good for them! Has anyone ever doubted that the philosopher should, at the very least, try to be a moral human being according to the standards of his time?

“The second foundational pillar we arrived at was meta-cognition – the overarching mental processes that guide our thoughts.” Well, again, yes but …

Okay, metacognition is a Big Word but it is easy to explain because it means something that we experience all the time: As a human being, you can think about what you are thinking about. You can ask, ought I to snitch on Lee? Break my promise to Neela? Have another slice of pie? You are reviewing your thoughts … that’s metacognition. Your brain presents your thoughts to your mind for evaluation.

A cat can’t do that. He never asks himself, “Should I torment mice for fun? Is it ethical?” He is intelligent but his intelligence doesn’t include metacognition, the ability to ask those questions. Metacognition is not wisdom but it is almost certainly a prerequisite for wisdom. So the Toronto Wisdom Task Force has got that right.

But what does the Task Force contribute to our general, unexamined recognition of these facts? Well, nothing really, except when it stumbles spectacularly:

Because wisdom is desirable, measuring its moral or meta-cognitive features presents unique challenges. Self-views of such meta-cognitive features as intellectual humility must be taken with a grain of salt. After all, telling someone that you’re humbler than others would be antithetical to the notion of humility.

Igor Grossmann, “The Science of Wisdom” at Aeon

Okay, but then what about Jesus? He famously said, “I am humble and gentle of heart” and billions of people have believed him for thousands of years. Now that’s an empirical test, of the sort that Grossmann is looking for. And it points in the opposite direction of his claims. Why? Maybe believers think that Jesus points beyond this world, a no-no for naturalists but a claim worth examining otherwise, irrespective of your religion.

White lily and blurred burning candles on table in darkness, space for text. Funeral symbol

Grossmann goes on to describe an apparent puzzle over why people are more upset about their own problems than about other people’s problems:

… those who thought about a friend’s partner being unfaithful were substantially more likely to engage in each aspect of meta-cognition than the people whose own partner revealed they’d been unfaithful. This finding is not intuitive: don’t we know ourselves better than we know our friends? Aren’t we more motivated to work through an issue that concerns us personally? Despite possibly more in-depth insight and greater motivation when the situation concerns ourselves, our ability to reflect on interpersonal transgressions in our personal lives appears diminished.

Igor Grossmann, “The Science of Wisdom” at Aeon

One wonders, from what planet does this puzzlement hail? On Earth, the problem is called “I have skin in the game.” Old people die every day and we scan the obits and go to work. But a woman who sees her own mother die needs a week off work. Most of us do not need a “scientific” explanation of her reaction. And why should we? Only a clod would protest her bereavement leave anyway.

But the Wisdom team plods undaunted into the sunset:

As the sun set over Toronto, the first Wisdom Task Force meeting was coming to an end. We made a strong start, finding a unified voice about wisdom’s psychological pillars, establishing a common language, and identifying best practices for assessment. Given the brevity of the meeting, many questions remained unanswered. Can there be artificial wisdom (and how would it be distinct from artificial intelligence)? Are the psychological pillars of wisdom always desirable? How exactly can insights about wisdom be applied during times of uncertainty and civic unrest? In the months that followed, the task force members began working on a report from the meeting, as the whole world started getting closer to midnight on the atomic clock. The first half of the year 2020 has brought us bushfires in Australia, a worldwide pandemic, societal unrest, global economic fallout and counting. In such times, wisdom appears more needed than ever before. By deconstructing it, scientists can now turn an eye toward nurturing and sustaining wisdom in challenging times.

Igor Grossmann, “The Science of Wisdom” at Aeon

Here’s a theme for a conference that most certainly won’t be funded by the same sources: Why does naturalism trivialize everything it touches?

The problem with naturalizing wisdom is that wisdom isn’t natural. It necessarily comes from a perspective beyond our own troubles in our own time. Naturalists (nature is all there is) have literally nothing to contribute to the pursuit of wisdom, which points to a deep flaw in their system. And when we contribute to their system, we are deepening the flaw.

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Why does “evolution theory” trivialize everything it touches? A pair of evolutionary anthropologists try their hand at dealing with existential grief, anxiety, and depression. Probably, any perspective that sees humans as merely evolved animals will offer platitudes and prescriptions for suffering, rather than insight or inspiration.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Why Wisdom Is Not and Cannot Be a “Science”