Monday, December 26, 2005

On Wisdom

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a set of character traits that I found on the site of the Ohio Secretary of State. In that previous article, I wrote about the site’s Orwellian definition of liberty. Rather than defend true liberty, the site defended a notion that “liberty” means doing what the government tells us to do so that the government will not punish us with loss of liberty. “Liberty,” in this document, is the term used in this document to describe a condition where the government treats its citizens like children. “Do as we say, or we will send you to your room without any supper.”

The site, describes 20 character traits. The first on the list was “Wisdom.” The account given here is as follows:

SEEKING WISDOM: Ethical or high-character people courageously seek something greater than intelligence or knowledge (knowing what is); they seek wisdom (knowing what is right or true). Wisdom must logically culminate in the identification of conscience-convicting truth to be intellectually honest. Hence, the relentless pursuit of truth, its source and its compelling advocacy is the moral objective of ethical, character-building people. (Observable Virtues: principled, prudent, contemplative))

The claim that there is some sort of distinction to be drawn between knowing what is, and knowing what is right or true, is simply nonsense. There is no such distinction.

I suspect that the reason for this nonsense is to deliver a religious message – to denigrate and insult those who do not share the religious views of those promoting this particular concept of wisdom. As I mentioned in the blog entry referenced above, this list of character traits is associated with a group of people in Ohio more interested in theocracy than in liberty. Consistent with this, a reasonable interpretation of “something greater than intelligence” is religious faith. It is an attempt to draw a distinction between those who know the world through observation and science, and to assert the superiority of those who are aware of a “greater truth” probably available through scripture, divine revelation, or a personal relationship with God.

It is interesting to find insults and denigration of others with different views in a document meant to promote virtue – as if insult and denigration of others is a virtue.

Intelligence and Wisdom

When I was young, I had reason to contemplate the difference between intelligence and wisdom. The account that I used to describe the difference to my friends was this:

A person with intelligence can win a game of Trivial Pursuit™ or Jeopardy™. A person with wisdom can win a game of chess.

Chess involves very few rules. The average grade-school student can memorize the rules for chess. However, a person with wisdom can take those few simple rules, look at the huge number of moves that are available in chess, and find those moves that are most likely to produce a desired result – to checkmate the opponent’s king.

There is nothing in this that justifies a distinction between knowing what is and what knowing what is right or true. The distinction depends on how one acquires knowledge.

The person without wisdom can be told how the Queen moves in a game of chess, and can learn the capabilities of a pawn, but lacks the ability (the wisdom) to deduce the value in winning the game of sacrificing a pawn in order to capture the opponent’s queen.

The intelligent person can acquire this type of knowledge. He can learn that he needs to protect his queen. He can learn the relative values of a bishop versus a rook – that the rook’s ability to land on a square of either color gives it an advantage over the bishop’s ability to land only on squares of the color it is on at the start of the game. The wise person does not have to read this in a chess book to come to these conclusions. He can deduce it from the basic rules that he has been given and a few minutes of experience.

What this means is that there is no truth available to the wise person that the intelligent person cannot acquire. There is nothing greater than what “is” to know. The wise person simply has a way of reaching those truths that do not depend on blindly listening to what he is told. He can figure things out for himself.

The Virtue of Wisdom

Wisdom is, indeed, a virtue. Just as the wise person can better win a game of chess, he can better accomplish other objectives. A wise project manager, for example, can meet a group of people working underneath him and conclude which will work best together and which it would be best to separate. He will be able to deduce which types of work to give to each employee, and the type of product he can expect to get back. If he is wise, he can anticipate problems become they arrive and take steps to mitigate those problems if they should occur.

He does not need to read about a problem in a book or hear somebody else talk about an issue to be aware of the possibility. He can anticipate possibilities that nobody else has ever experienced or talked about. These are valuable skills, and a skill that a person seeking excellence will certainly try to cultivate.

Acquiring Wisdom

There are two primary ways to cultivate wisdom; logic and experience.


The ability to deduce new conclusions from given pieces of information is precisely what logic is about. Logic is the study of those rules that say, “If you have these premises, then you can draw those conclusions, but not those others.” The conclusions that can be drawn from these premises are deductively sound or inductively strong. The conclusions that a wise person would not draw from these premises are deductively invalid or fallacious, or inductively weak or unwarranted. The wise person knows how to seek the former and to avoid the latter.


The other way to improve one’s wisdom in an area is through experience. We learn from our mistakes. Not only do we learn the facts that relate to that specific mistake, but we acquire an ability to anticipate relevantly similar mistakes. We learn the warning signs, and we learn what each warning sign means. In this way, an experienced driver learns to anticipate the dangers of the road and how to avoid them. The experienced military commander learns when and how to use his artillery. The experienced comic rehearses his routine, practices, and learns how to read and respond to each audience.

The driver, the military commander, and the politician know the virtues of practice. To help develop wisdom, we first send drivers to a class where they can be student drivers; we allow them to drive on back roads and parking lots while they develop their skills. Military commanders hold war games to develop the commander’s battlefield wisdom – and even to develop the wisdom that aid the common soldiers in the field.

Policies for Promoting Wisdom

This suggests that if we are truly interested in promoting wisdom – as we should be – that there are two courses of action to pursue towards this end.

Teach Logic

The first policy to adopt to promote wisdom -- teach logic to children. The informal fallacies are easy enough for students in Jr. High to understand and apply. If you do not want your children to be as susceptible to the demagogues and others who will seek to entice them into drawing unreasonable conclusions, a good understanding of the logical fallacies should help in this regard. High school students should be able to understand formal logic. Indeed, I cannot think of a reason why it is not a required course. Would society not benefit by a population that actually knows how to reason – to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted inferences?

I find that the greatest evidence against the claim that our schools aim to teach children how to think rests in the fact that the rules for distinguishing warranted from unwarranted conclusions are never discussed in most schools.

On the main page to this blog, after a link to my own home page, I list three sites devoted to logical fallacies, and one site dedicated to logic in general. This is because of the value that the skill of logic, and in particular being able to detect when others are trying to sneak through an unwarranted conclusion, and to avoid fallacious reasoning in one’s own writing.

Promote Useful Experience

The second policy to adopt to promote wisdom is to promote the right types of experiences. The child who plays computer games and watches television acquires wisdom in how to win that game or anticipate what is going to happen in that show, but is not acquiring any useful wisdom. Useful wisdom means putting the child in situations where he will practice the skills that will help him as adults.


The word “Philosophy” comes from ancient Greece, and means literally “The love of wisdom.” Philosophy consists in the application of reason to the most difficult questions that we know, in the hopes of determining the most reasonable answer.

Wisdom is not insulting and denigrating those who do not share one’s religion. That is not wisdom. That is what the ancient Greeks called “sophistry” – playing games with words in order to manipulate others, usually to the disadvantage of the listener and the advantage of the speaker.

It is quite sad to see a text that claims to respect and promote the value of wisdom instead dedicated to presenting sophistry in its place.


Anonymous said...

I think a simplier definition of wisdom goes like this:

Truth is the collection of verifible facts;

A decision is considered wise when we look back at how those facts were used.

So judging a decision as wise is bound to the context in which that decision was made.

First Time Visitor

Just discovered your site, very nice!

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr.

We obtain our understanding of what a person is saying from the context in which it is said.

If you were to see one person waving a knife menacingly in the direction of another and say, "I'll kill you," your understanding of that situation would be different depending on whether this erupted unexpectedly in a bar, or you saw it on the stage of a local theater during a play. In one context, you would infer that a life was in danger. In the other, you would not.

In this case, the context is one in which Ohio Secretary of State and Gubinatorial Candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell holds the sincere belief that only those who believe in God are wise, and any who doubt the existence of God is a fool. He has openly associated himself with Reverend Rod Parsley who has explicitly called for the (peaceful) overthrow of our current system of government and replace it with a theocracy. His creed is that I, in virtue of my beliefs, am unfit to hold any position in government or any position of authority.

Where people assert that only Christians are wise and all others are fools, a statement to the effect that "wise people seek something greater than intelligence" can only reasonably be interpreted as "wise people are those who have Christian faith."

Put these words in context, and their meaning is clear.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I am disinclined to accept the idea that there is such a thing as "hard facts" and "soft facts".

The "fears, ambitions and hopes of people caught up in these events" are as much "hard facts" as the forces of physics. Only, there are more of them and more complex.

A good golfer can assess a number of facts in determining how best to hit the ball -- from the wind to the contours of the ground to the way the grass may urge the ball one way or another. The ability to weigh all of these complex matters does not change the fact that he is dealing with hard facts.

The same is true with the diplomat trying to negotiate a peace treaty through a field of conflicting interests. These still count as hard facts.

The distinction, I continue to hold, is that the wise person can deduce likely conclusions from evidence better than others. He can "read" other people, or "read" the course or "read" the weather or "read" the opponent on a battlefield and "read" the mood and capabilities of his own soldiers better than others.

Yet, still, the golfer is dealing with a hard fact. "An initial impulse of magnitued M in direction D will cause the ball to travel to point P."

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Greetings, Don Jr.

On the first item, I have a greater than 99.999% confidence that Reverend Rod Parsley of Ohio would endorse the statement, "Saying that an atheist is a fool is no more an insult than saying that fires are hot." Plus, it is widely reported in the Ohio press that gubinatorial candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell is seeking Reverend Parsley's support in the election, something that he can get only if he promotes Parsley's objectives.

Those objectives, as I cited in the referenced posting, are to establish a theocracy in Ohio (his words, not mine) -- a political view in which those who do not believe in (his interpretation of) God are unfit for any type of civil service.

Now, what I wrote, which is what I believe, is that when people who believe that atheists are fools say that wisdom is the "something greater than intelligence or knowledge," that what they mean is that wisdom is faith. In other words, they are writing their belief that atheists are fools into their definition of wisdom.

You wrote that I derived my case from the quote (I assume you mean the "Wisdom" quote). That was incorrect. As I stated in my first response to your accusation, I derived my claim from news reports of the political aims of Reverend Parsley as reported in the Ohio press, and J. Kenneth Blackwell's close association with and attempts to secure the endorsement of Rev. Parsley, as referenced in the linked post (and the links contained within).

As for your second question, my claim is that a proper definition of wisdom does not seek to make a claim like "by the very definition of wisdom, atheists are fools." In other words, the definition of wisdom does not contain within it a subtext that is insulting or denigrating to any particular religion. It allows for the possibility that others with which one disagrees may be right.

The account of wisdom that I offered is consistent with that requirement.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Don Jr.

Your description of my argument is flawed in two key ways.

(1) You characterize my argument as a deductive argument when I explicitly reported that it was an inductive argument with a high level of confidence. All inductive arguments are, by definition, deductively invalid therefore any argument to the effect that my argument is deductively invalid misses the point.

(2) You characterized the argument as relying on only two statements while I asserted that my evidence is the whole of Rev. Presley's objectives as reported in the press (including items I linked to), including his explicit claim that he seeks to establish a theocracy and that only Christians are fit to hold public office.

As for your 2nd Posting, I have answered it by identifying that it is a false dichotomy -- like stating, "Either your car is blue, or it must be red. Which is it?" I answer that it is green.

Or, specifically, that my objection was against a definition of wisdom that defined atheists as fools by definition (a priori) rather than (if it is true at all) as an a posteriori truth.