Some Philosophizing About Wisdom

by Ben Best




Wisdom is the most general form of understanding and perceptiveness. In the modern world, with so much knowledge and so many experts, it is rare to ascribe wisdom to any one person, and it is presumptuous for anyone to regard themselves as wise. Even in the ancient world, philosophy was defined as "love of wisdom" and philosophers were those who loved — but did not necessarily possess — wisdom.

Wisdom is a generalized expertise in how to live and why to live. Intelligence, knowledge, empathy, and accumulated experience are necessary, but not sufficient in themselves for wisdom. Experts often become wise in their field of expertise, although such people can often be "idiot savants" — highly capable in a very narrow area and lacking in much understanding or judgment in other areas.

Wisdom involves self-control, good judgment, and skill at planning, problem-solving, and decision-making. Wisdom involves deep understanding of both how to succeed and what to succeed at. Wisdom is an uncommon sense that entails — but goes far beyond — common sense.

Wisdom is often said to provide the ability to distinguish what can be changed from what it is a futile waste of energy to try to change. If the world cannot change according to desire, try to make desire conform to what is possible. This has been called the difference between Western (Occidental) and Eastern (Oriental) wisdom: change versus acceptance. Trying to get along with unpleasant people can be called "political".

If wisdom is equated with perfection it becomes unattainable and useless. It is more productive to believe that we can increase our own wisdom, and become more adept at making good decisions — thereby improving the quality of life for ourselves and others.

Wisdom entails knowledge of emotions as well as of facts. A wise person can read facial expressions, tone of voice, and can empathize (as well as sympathize) with the emotional state of another person. Wisdom entails control of one's own emotions and impulses. Wisdom entails the ability to act effectively under conditions of stress, and work effectively with other people. As with other aspects of wisdom, some of these abilities can be learned, and some cannot.

Integrity is an important component of wisdom. Even if a person can seemingly benefit from a single unethical deed, the character of a dishonest person soon becomes evident to others — destroying the basis for trusting relationships. Goodwill is built by a history of honest transactions, but can be ruined by a single dishonest one.

The ability to simulate events in the imagination allows for better understanding of the past & present as well as better preparation for the future. The ability to imagine expected future situations in detail helps one think of what knowledge, equipment or human assistance will be needed to deal most effectively with the situations. Planning and decision-making is rooted in the most general vision of goals and possibilities. Wisdom means living that rises above reacting to circumstances.

Life that is only reacting to circumstances is a kind of thoughtless passivity, and implies a lack of control over circumstances. Excessive control of circumstances, however, implies a machine-like execution of plans that is unresponsive to opportunity — not really control in an ultimate sense.

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People with expertise in medicine, law, accounting, dentistry, auto-mechanics and other specialties are not hard to find. In seeking advice from others, we often seek both expertise and wisdom. We want to be able to trust those who advise us — to choose advisors who are highly trustworthy or to have the wisdom ourselves to recognize when the advice might be self-serving or otherwise misleading. A person without integrity cannot be considered wise.

If we cannot trust our advisers we will need more wisdom to recognize when advice might be misleading. Some advisors are forced upon us, who say things that are disturbing or humiliating. It is wisdom to make use of such advisers if they can contribute to us.

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Attributing wisdom to another person is a subjective judgment. A person is more inclined to believe that another person is wise if they both share the same views, particularly religious and political views.

Humility is an important requirement for the acquisition of knowledge. A "know-it-all" full of smugness, overconfidence, and an unwillingness to admit to deficiencies of understanding is not well-positioned to learn more. Gurus who spend their lives on mountaintops or in caves are not well positioned to acquire life experience or be wise in the ways of the world (although such a setting may be conducive for the digestion of experience). Wisdom is philosophy of living at least as much as it is philosophy of life. We are also more inclined to trust someone who shares our views.

What a person wants in life is very personal and subjective for a person who is wise enough not to be at the mercy of external agents who wish to dictate those wants. Most people's lives cannot be built from scratch, but it is wise to always question the current conditions of life in terms or what is possible and desirable. It is important to know how to solve problems, but it is also important to keep asking what are the goal, and why those are the goals.

Everyone makes mistakes, including ethical mistakes. Experience and practice can improve integrity. When tempted to make an unethical decision, thought should be given to finding ethical alternatives or to making alternatives ethical.

When not pressured by external demands, most people seek entertainment rather than reflection. Rest and recuperation are important, but there is much to be gained by imagining what is possible when there is time to do so than to live a life simply slavishly responding to pressing demands and threats.

Organizations are created with specific goals, which are more constrained than the lives of individual people. Nonetheless, wise management will not cease to question goals and will not be forever trapped in remedying mistakes or struggling to cope with pressing demands. Principles guiding wise management or organizations are similar to those guiding wise personal living.

In the most general sense, a problem is a difference between existing conditions and desired conditions. But desired conditions should be possible conditions. Imagination (or lack of imagination) can expand (or limit) the vision of what conditions are possible. Imagination can sometimes find the means that can turn an outlandish dream into an achievable goal.

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Planning is often motivated by worry, but even when it is motivated by desire there can be considerable anxiety associated with carrying-out plans, especially if there is a large investment. (For more on the subject of anxiety, see Some Philosophizing About Psychological Stress .)

Conflict between humans is a very common feature of human life, and any philosophy of life that ignores this fact isn't paying attention. (For more on the subject of conflict, see Some Philosophizing About Conflict.) Principles for waging war have served as a model for dealing with many of life's problems.

The distinction between strategy and tactics in war can be generalized beyond war to business, and to successful living. In war, tactics refers to maneuvers employed when directly engaged with the opponent, whereas strategy is more concerned with deciding when, where, and how to engage. Strategy looks to the future, whereas tactics is immersed in the present. In the context of business, strategy is a long-term plan, whereas tactics are immediate actions which may be based on strategy. In business, as in war, times when one is not pressed to make immediate tactical decisions are times that can be productively spent developing strategy. In general, life is more efficiently organized when time is allowed for deciding what is wanted and what is the best means of achieving those wants, rather than only functioning on the level of reacting to immediate demands. Those who have little patience for planning, and who try to win through tactics alone are less likely to succeed, although this depends on the context. Planning is less essential for success in basketball than in chess.

The language of war is misapplied to business when competitors are only treated as enemies. It can be a waste of resources to concentrate on producing a superior product in the exact same market where the competitor has strength. It is better for a business to look to their own markets and their own capabilities in determining strategy. Complementary products can turn business "enemies" into valuable allies.

Planning is the process of seeing differences between how things are and how things should be — and determining means of making things be as they should be. Sometimes planning requires not only considerable effort determining what is possible, but considerable effort clarifying understanding of the current situation. In simple cases it is obvious how to make things be as they should, and planning only requires making lists of tasks and scheduling when to do them. Planning is resource management, where resources can be time, people, materials, and tools. Planning of time is scheduling.

Decision-making is concerned with making choices between alternatives. Planning may or may not require much choosing, other than choosing which tasks to perform at a particular time. A simple form of decision making involves making a list of alternatives, and then listing reasons for and against each alternative. A simple quantitative approach is to determine the probability of each alternative, and calculate the expected value (product of value and probability) of each alternative. The choice between carrying an umbrella and not carrying an umbrella will be determined by the product of the probability of rain and the inconvenience of having to carry an umbrella.

Decision-making is rarely so simple, only in part because lists of alternatives may not be complete and the probability of each alternative may be difficult to determine. No probability is involved in choosing between tubes of toothpaste on a given self of a given store. But with a little imagination, more alternatives are available — go to a different store, brush with salt-water or baking-powder, or forego brushing entirely. Pressing the point one can resort to shopping for toothpaste on the internet or going to stores in different countries. The value of the choice will affect the costs that one will incur to find the best alternative.

There are many sophisticated mathematical models for decision-making which go beyond the scope of this essay. Wikipedia provides a list of decision-making steps which I paraphrase:

One must be careful not to identify a problem in terms of proposed solutions, such as "the FDA is inadequately funded". Problems should be described in terms of ultimate causes, rather than in terms of symptoms. Inflation isn't a problem of businesses raising prices, it is a problem of government increasing the money supply.

The amount of effort or money expended to determine alternatives, and to determine the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative should be in proportion to the value of the decision. The value of delaying a decision to gather more information will also be in proportion to the value of the decision. Seeking advice from others concerning alternatives — and the relative merits of alternatives — can be of great value for important decisions, which independent-minded people may neglect to do. Often it is advantageous to delay a decision when there is no pressing need to make it immediately, in part because unexpected information may emerge. It should be common sense to delay decisions, if possible, when one is suffering from excessive stress or fatigue.

It may sometimes be possible to reverse a decision if bad results are seen soon after implementation. For that reason, alternatives that can be reversed have an advantage over alternatives that cannot be reversed. Evaluating decisions in light of results should go beyond simply determining whether the decisions were correct. The decision-making process itself should be evaluated in light of the results. The process of writing and running computer programs provides an opportunity to "de-bug" (find errors in) one's thinking because the computer will provide indications of where errors have occurred in the program. De-bugging decision-making does not involve such explicit feedback, and will require more careful review and analysis of the mental processes and mistakes that went into making a decision.

Evaluating decision results without the aid of an outside source, such as a computer, empirical results, or other people, allows for the bias of decision-makers favoring their own decisions — especially decisions made on the basis of "intuition". A decision-maker is more likely to be pleased with the car he or she decided to buy. "Know thyself" is easier said than done. "Objective introspection" can too easily be self-delusion and wishful thinking. We can do more than struggle for "objective" correlation between subjective feeling of certainty and correctness of belief. Another problem is that results may be the consequences of causes other than the decision, while the decision is mistakenly identified as the cause.

All actions involve risks, which means that evaluating harms & probabilities associated with risks is an important aspect of decision-making. (For more on the role of risk in decisions, see Some Philosophizing About Subjective Risk.)

Organizations create policies which dictate decisions to be made under predetermined circumstances — and policies to constrain the kinds of decisions allowed. For individuals, routines and ethical standards provide a similar function.

Groups have access to more information than individuals, and thus have the potential to make better decisions. Having group members brainstorm about the proposed decision individually before meeting together generally leads to better group decision-making. Dissenting viewpoints must be sought and encouraged to avoid the influence of dominant personalities and pressures to conform. Having groups make decisions can facilitate execution of those decisions when those who are expected to implement the decision are included in the decision-making process, because they will have better understanding of the decision. On the other hand, group decision-making can be expensive, disagreements may arise, and time can be wasted on socializing.

A club, non-profit organization, or other voluntary group of dues-paying members that has assets and shared goals is often best administered by By-Laws, Robert's Rules of Order, or other rules. Such rules are intended to avoid conflicts and increase efficiency by facilitating orderliness and fairness. A quorum is established to prevent governance by an unrepresentative minority, yet including a large enough number of members as would be expected to participate in meetings or decision-making. Rarely can organizations count on a majority of their members to attend meetings, which is why quorum is usually much less than half of members. Motions (action-oriented proposals) should approved by at least a majority of a meeting at which a quorum is present — with fair & adequate discussion & debate so that those present can gain insights & information relevant to decision-making, with various viewpoints being heard.

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Wishful thinking and the tendency for belief to conform to emotion is probably the most common source of bias. Belief is a choice. People tend to react to new suggestions with emotion and preconceived beliefs. Intelligence is of little value if all of the intellectual energy is devoted to defending or justifying initial impressions, emotional responses, entrenched positions, or personal interests. Intelligence that is nothing more than a tool of the emotions is more of a rationalization machine than an instrument for accomplishment. Some intelligent people prefer to rely on intuition and hunches rather than on a careful search for alternatives and a careful review of the merits and demerits of alternatives. They regard other views and new information as irritants — "My mind is made-up, don't confuse me with facts".

Conforming to social norms is emotionally safe. It is uncomfortable to make decisions that might lead to social disapproval, and many people make decisions with an eye to social approval. If criteria other than social status are important, this form of bias often leads to erroneous beliefs and bad decisions. Scientists are under tremendous pressure to conform. Science often advances most dramatically by ideas initially regarded as outlandish, but scientist can risk a career by pursuing ideas that invoke disrespect in other scientists.

People are reportedly hypersensitive to harms caused by other people more than harms caused by non-human agents. Threats to dignity and honor arouse more emotion than physical injuries or dangers. Debating with others can amplify the attachment of ego to beliefs by associating dishonor with changing your mind.

Hindsight bias is the inclination to see past events as being predictable, which bolsters a belief in being able to predict the future. Hindsight bias is most readily applied to others rather than oneself — it is easy to imagine that one would not have made the same mistake as another person after seeing the results of that mistake.

Some people can be more committed to their methods than to the results, as if being committed to a method were a matter of principle. In an adversarial situation, being committed to a method is even more dangerous because it makes your behavior more predictable. Sticking to old methods may provide protection against unforeseen mistakes, but it guarantees that there will be no progress — which in many contexts guarantees eventual failure.

A "eureka" experience or epiphany is associated with strong conviction that can lead to decisive action, yet still be entirely wrong. Major investments (and malinvestments) are made when conviction is strong. Emotional states have a strong effect on decision-making. Under-confidence can be as dangerous as over-confidence. Demoralization can lead to procrastination, which can result in failure and further demoralization. Similarly, both excessive anxiety and inadequate anxiety (arousal) can lead to reduced performance — a phenomenon known to psychologists as the Yerkes-Dodson effect.

What a person thinks he or she will do — or knows what he or she should do — in an emotionally-laden situation may be very different from what is actually done. Impulsiveness and a desire to eliminate anxiety associated with a decision increases the likelihood of bad decisions. Temptation often over-rules good judgment. An old proverb warns: "Marry in haste, repent at leisure." (A couple should have a good understanding of the personality and expectations of their prospective spouses if they are to improve their chances of a successful marriage.) Sunk costs — whether money spent on a bad investment or time spent in a bad relationship — can cause people to excessively cling to bad decisions rather than to cut further losses. Sleep deprivation has been shown to affect risky behavior by decreasing avoidance of losses and increasing seeking of gains [JOURNAL OF NEUROSCIENCE; Venkatraman,v; 31(10:3712-3718 (2011)].

Reports on the results of psychological research in the book The Psychology of Judgment and Decision-Making by Scott Plous provides clues about bias that could hamper decision-making. Studies indicate that partisans perceive media coverage on subjects of their concern as being hostile to their own position. An extrapolation of this result would lead one to be wary of a paranoid perception in a conflict involving yourself or your group that would lead you to conclude that neutral parties are enemies.

As an exercise, Scott Plous suggests that the reader close eyes and remember a pleasant scene in his or her life. (Those reading this are invited to close both eyes and do this immediately.) In most cases, people see themselves in the scene — an obvious impossibility. The exercise is intended to demonstrate that memories are always reconstructions that are reconstructed at the moment of remembering — they are not like photos retrieved from a photo album. Emotions and new experiences easily affect reconstructions. Careful notes of events taken during (preferably) or shortly after those events is the best way of achieving accuracy.

In experiments where people were correct half the time, people expressed more than two-thirds confidence that they were correct. In other words, most people are over-confident when their accuracy is near chance. When accuracy is about 80%, people tend to be about 80% confident that their choices are right. But as accuracy exceeds 80%, confidence in the choice tends to become less than the accuracy of the choice.

Most people make the mistake of only looking for evidence that confirms their that their views are correct. For example, people who decide that their arthritis pain predicts rain can tend to remember the confirming instances and forget the non-conforming instances. Better decisions are made and clearer perceptions are achieved when an active effort is made to find reasons why the preferred decision is a bad one, and why existing beliefs might be wrong. People who are harsh critics of themselves tend to be more realistic, and make better decisions. A good decision-maker will relentlessly question himself or herself. Although it can be hard on the ego, a person wishing to be realistic should be willing to seek criticism from those wishing to disparage him or her, if there is a reasonable chance of gaining insight.

Decision groups show a tendency to move too quickly to decisions without spending adequate time generating and evaluating alternatives. And group members can feel pressured to conform. An effective group leader can counter these problems by encouraging dissenting opinions and more discussion of alternatives. Group decision-making has been found to encourage over-confidence, and a greater willingness to advocate risky decisions.

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