Friday, January 11, 2013

Knowledge and Wisdom

My mind is full of thoughts lately.  I cannot write them all down fast enough, it seems.  Here is something that came to me this morning that seems worth preserving.  Note that much of this reflects the outlook evident in Nassim Taleb's latest book, which I am really, really enjoying.  He is living proof for me that I am not utterly unusual in the way I instinctively approach the universe.  He knows math better than I do, and I cannot always judge his technical comments as well as I aspire to (one day, if I ever have nothing better to do than crack some math books open again), but his philosophical outlook is so close to mine as to make us practically identical twins.  People used to ask me why I elected to study dead languages and whatnot in college, and I would come up with vaguely uncomfortable answers--self-deprecating jokes to postpone their interest until I found some better way to respond.  Taleb has given some of the best answers that I have heard from somebody else.  I wish I could have read him earlier (when he still did not exist in print): having a perspective like his available in language I could understand might have saved me some awkward moments as an undergrad (or even in grad school, at the beginning).  I instinctively value wisdom more than knowledge, and I did not have the vocabulary to talk meaningfully to people (laypeople or my professors) about the difference.

In modern practice (and jargon), it seems to me that intelligence has become the ability to perform to an arbitrary standard on certain set tests. These tests are built around knowledge, which is conceived as regular and predictable narrative unfolding the truth about life, the universe, and everything: intelligent people are supposed to see data and turn them into narratives, with the most coherent narrative being the most intelligent (regardless of any untoward consequences that it might have when people take it seriously).

Wisdom on the other hand, when I invoke it (as a student and a reader of ancient wisdom literature: there is an impressive collection of the stuff that few people nowadays read) is about deconstructing narratives as much as building them. It knows that it does not know, and finds values the ability to doubt at least as much as the ability to have positive faith. It values the lack of knowledge (and intelligence) as much (or more than) its possession, and puts perfect knowledge (if it even admits this as a possibility) firmly outside the human realm. (No man can know the ways of the gods: the lord in Delphi does not speak; he merely offers signals that we perceive through a glass, darkly; in this life we never see clearly.) Intelligence is a terrible, devilish burden as well as an awe-inspiring, divine gift. "The serpent tempted me with the gods' ambrosia, and I did eat: at first it was sweet beyond all sweetness, but the aftertaste was most bitter." Not all of us have the stomach for the wine of the gods, and infinite amounts of it will destroy any man. We have lost sight of this reality in modernity, seeing the positive effects of being drunk on intelligence and knowledge without noticing the negative ones (since our larger social networks have allowed the drunkest fools to pass their hangovers on to somebody else, somebody too clueless to recognize what is happening).

The message of religions the world over is mostly true. What isn't true is the human element: our priests, like our other "experts" in so many domains, have become drunk on their own intelligence, so drunk that they have failed to recognize the difference between the sacred (that lies outside their grasp) and the profane (that they can understand and manipulate without hurting anyone). They have blasphemed against their own gods, making a mockery of sacred things and replacing the real divinity (the uncertain) with false idols (of impossible certainty). They have turned myths (the Garden of Eden) into history ("our earth is precisely 6000 years old ... or 14 billion years old"), wisdom ("the ways of God are not our ways, and they never will be") into knowledge ("I can see into the mind of God with this perfect rain dance: the math is truly beautiful and elegant, no?"), humility ("I must live limited by my human capacity") into arrogance ("I can make any god I please in my own image: I am the mind of your god and mine, and all men must bow to me!"). They are fools, and the vengeance of God will surely find them, no matter what they believe: like many turkeys before them, they simply do not understand Thanksgiving.  ("There is no evidence that any bird will be slaughtered tomorrow, since none of us has been killed in the past: on the contrary, we have been fattened and treated very well!")

It is hard to teach wisdom, because wisdom values failure more than success (or at least makes the two equally important), whereas modern life is all about writing failure out of reality (in the impossible myths that it creates to paper over unpleasant truth that it doesn't want to see). The most wise are those who fail and survive to tell their lack of success (to themselves and others); the false prophets of knowledge dislike this kind of wisdom. It doesn't sell well. It doesn't grow the economy (in the short-term). It undercuts the intelligent illusion that life is fundamentally some kind of virtual game that we can recreate to suit our fancy through massive mutual daydreams ("If we all imagine this crazy world without evil together, then it will become reality! No more death! No more social violence! No more bankruptcy! No more moral depravity! Imagine! Hey, you over there, stop ruining our outcome by refusing to drink the Kool-Aid with everybody else. That is antisocial behavior, and we will not tolerate it. Bottoms up, or you get to go into permanent time-out, on Ritalin, in a cubicle somewhere").  But real life is not the World of Warcraft, no matter how fun that game might be, no matter how smart the people who make it. And wishing will not make it so. Screw the visionaries who demand that we all live by their vision, as though it were the reality it can never be. I laugh derisively in their general direction, even as they fart philanthropically in mine. But whose emissions smell better in the end? That is the question we are trying to decide, I guess.

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