Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Is There Wisdom?

Wisdom is not a new concept. But it is difficult to arrive at a satisfactory definition, especially in a culture awash with both relativism and cultism. It is not even easy to decide if it actually exists, especially in a culture where leaders are consumed with lust for money, power and sex, the journalism media is corrupt, and TV is saturated with garbage. But let’s explore the concept anyway, especially its relationship with empiricism.

A child learns not to touch when Mom says, “hot!”, by touching it anyway. This is a personal empirical experience, a data point.

When a child repeatedly touches it anyway, it would be called foolish: repeatedly doing the same thing expecting different results. But is it wisdom to expect the same result each time? Or is that merely a bottom-up result of empiricism?

Or is wisdom something more? Or maybe something less?

Wisdom is widely referred to by religions and cults of all stripes. They claim a path beyond the temporal to a way of knowing that is overarching the physical world. The wise learn and apply this, and call it wisdom, they teach.

But there are so many religions and so many paths; do they all wind up at a common super-reality called “wisdom” ? Clearly this is not the case. So the commonality of all supernaturals called “religions” is not a provider of a common object which we can refer to as wisdom. Maybe then one subgroup of religions provides such a path to “wisdom”? If it did, how would we know, if we don’t know what wisdom is?

Let’s assume that wisdom does not exist; perhaps it is a myth, a story, an improper interpretation of another state of knowing. Perhaps it is really just an accumulation of empirical data points, placed in a contiguity that provides a coherent reference for temporal reality. If that were the case, then wisdom could be acquired by memorization of piles of scientific tomes. In fact computers, having vast memories, would be very wise. The internet would be the wisest of all. This is clearly not the case either.

And what about emotional responses, are they factors in wisdom? Do love and altruism have wisdom attributes? Do hate and lust have folly components? Let’s presume for now that they do.

If wisdom includes both rational components and positive emotional components, and folly includes both irrational components and negative emotional components, then what can we say then about wisdom? Since there is a decision to be made between wisdom and folly, can we declare wisdom to be a choice? Or is it a discipline? Or is it both of these and more?

In previous posts the nature of subjective reality has been probed. It is commonplace now for empiricists and forensicists alike to claim that there is no subjective reality, that such an internal experience is totally physical as is shown by MRI scans of blood flow to certain brain locations during certain experiences. However, brain plasticity has shown that these scans change, even within a single person, when the scans are repeated over time: locations in the brain are not absolute, they change. One might conclude that the experiences are not fixed, material chunks in the grey matter. Nor are they “brain states” in the normal computer sense. The brain is not a serial, clocked mechanism, it is massively parallel without timing for the creation of clocked “states”.

So the denial of a separate “subjective reality” is without empirical basis. And this relates to “wisdom”, how?

If one does any self-contemplation – introspection – at all, the realization will very likely occur that decisions are not always performed on a rational basis. By non-rational basis we shall say that the consequences of the decision are not always considered before the decision is made. Example: purchasing on credit without the ability to pay back the loan.

So if decisions can be both rational and irrational, what separates them other than randomness? My position here is that it is discipline, based on the perceived benefits of making decisions based on both valid situational input and projected consequences, compared to the hazards of making decisions based on whim and noncontemplation of consequences.

There is no question that for the material world, this is one way to talk about empiricism. Even if there is no other reality, the commitment to making proper empirical decisions is a function outside the dataset; the commitment says “I should”. Shoulds are imperatives, not declaratives. Shoulds are perhaps emergent from datasets, but they are not contained within datasets. Decisions emerge from datasets, but they are not contained within the datasets. The dataset contains a picture of an existing environment; a decision includes an estimation of impact and consequence of acting on the dataset. Decisions emerge in a state transcending the dataset. And how do they emerge?

The manner of thought that integrates datasets into imperatives guiding actions, is, in my opinion, wisdom. Datasets contain contingent factoids, added to previous data, and thus expanding the contingent knowledge of the factoid set surrounding a certain physical phenomenon. But why should there be a commitment to such a dataset, or even to the pursuit of the acquisition such a dataset in the first place?

It might be that, as knowledge increases, matures and becomes coherent, a perceived benefit exists, emerging beyond the boundaries of the data. That this knowledge proceeds from, but is not a part of the dataset, is a significant human creation: it is a creation of meaning. It is here that the empirical world of datasets is transcended.

Commitment to empiricism is actually a commitment to meaning. For objective reality, the meaning is objective, and is physically realized. But for subjective reality, meaning is subjective and beyond the auspices of empirical interpretation. This becomes the point of contention: for the philosophical materialists who claim that science - empirical science - can and will produce the hidden physical realities behind all phenomena including subjective phenomena and will then test them empirically.

Of course, empiricism cannot even physically test its own philosophy, nor can it produce anything other than contingent factoids as opposed to truth. Even the axioms at the base of scientific inquiry cannot be proven empirically, so empiricism actually could be false should these axioms not be true, as they are presumed to be. The limits of empiricism are mechanical in nature; philosophical materialism ignores these very real limits.

So functionally, mechanically and physically, empiricism is limited. But meanings are unlimited in their range of interpretation, with an infinite number of non-valid meanings being available to choose from, and only a few or even just one valid meaning. So meanings derived from empirical pursuits are limited only by the commitment to rational analysis, based on First Principle truths (axiomatic) that are outside the purview of empiricism.

And the commitment is a decision to be rigorous in rational methodology.

The decision to be rigorous in rational methodology is an exercise in wisdom, a learned response created within and despite an irrational culture, and as a meaning, it is not a feature of physical, natural matter.

The refutation of this definition or other attempts to describe the transcendent state of wisdom will always be couched in scientism and philosophical materialism. Perhaps such a decision to be rigorous will be called an intellectual “ethic”, and the source of ethics is just memes instantiated as brain states. But this is not only unproven, it is unprovable and is actually absurd and trivial, for the reasons given above.

It is not possible to refute the idea of “ideas”, or of “decisions”, or of “ethics”, or of any non-physical entity using physical, material tests and techniques. Yet this is the position of philosophical materialists who refuse to admit to the obvious.

So it is possible to conclude that transcendents do exist, that wisdom is a transcendent, that such transcendents cannot rationally be refuted using empiricism the tool for refutation, and that wisdom – as defined and explored above – can exist, does exist, and is the supervisory state required for empiricism to be valid. In fact wisdom is also the supervisory state required for all valid decisions, including the case of filtering emotional issues to raise the core rational consequences, which wisdom has chosen to pursue in a disciplined manner.

If you choose to attempt a refutation of this, don’t bother with empirical arguments, and certainly don’t bother with Just So Stories about how X evolved. This is not a discussion about an objective material entity; it is subjective reality. Got a rational, logical refutation for the existence and nature of wisdom? Then let’s talk, I look forward to it.


Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

This was a thoughtful post with much meat.

I can't refute the possibility that wisdom might exist on either evidentiary or logical grounds, and I would tend to agree that anyone who stipulate otherwise is probably misled by their own biases.

What are those biases? Perhaps materalism with respect to mind, and as an corollary with that the conviction that science alone, assuming material causes, will determine the origins of 'wisdom' without reference to non-natural phenomena. That would be scientism of some sort, I suppose. On the other hand, one could admit a non-material explanation as fundamentally possible without conceding a non-natural origin for consciousness. Or, like the 'mysterian' philosophers say, regard our ability to explore the topic as fundamentally compromised without regard to whether its origin is natural, or no.

I would also certainly not claim that any sort of speculation about the adaptiveness of this or that module of mind (a 'Just So Story') constitutes science in and of itself, but I would say that as a starting point for investigation such speculations are useful 'thought experiments', springboards for discussion that can help better delineate the state of our ignorance, if nothing else. I would also say that comparative neuroscience and behavioral psychology across species lines is a welcome source of data in evaluating such suggestions. Where you may be unduly troubled is to imagine that evolutionary biology is largely a matter of story-telling, rather than investigation and experiment as with other fields. I would tell you that if you read the actual literature you won't see too much Discovery Channel-style 'speculative reenactments', and when such ideas are referred to in a paper, they are always identified as mere food for thought, rather than claims about what really must have happened.

Anyway, you certainly gave me a lot to think about. Thanks!

Stan said...

Scott said,
"Where you may be unduly troubled is to imagine that evolutionary biology is largely a matter of story-telling, rather than investigation and experiment as with other fields."

The experiments that I have seen seem to be actually designed to produce inferences rather than the primary data. By this I mean that the primary data is unobtainable due to historical remoteness, and any current experiments will not ever produce primary confirmation of historical events. So all that can be done is to produce better inferences or confirm the feasibility of these inferences. But they remain inferences.

So the interesting question arises (I was going to post this, but a comment will suffice): How many fictions does it take to produce a possibility? How many fictions does it take to produce a probability? How many fictions does it take to produce a fact? and how many fictions does it take to produce a truth?

Surely there must be metrics for such a thing? Otherwise, how does one quantitatively discuss the convergence of inferences toward a coherent hypothesis?

I take the liberty of calling inferences (not being fact) fictions. So is an hypothesis coherent at 10 fictions? or 100? or maybe it takes 10,000? or a million?

You see the problem. "Coherent convergence" is, itself, not definable under these definitions and conditions. So the problem is intractable in perpetuity, or so it appears to me.