I ran across a quote recently, which I’ll paraphrase: “Knowledge is recognizing that Frankenstein is not the monster. Wisdom is realizing that Frankenstein is the monster.” This is a post reflecting on science, “knowledge,” and sapience, “wisdom.”
(A-Z challenge S logo)
One of the definitions I’ve heard for wisdom is “the capacity for making good decisions.” Knowledge is the information you have; wisdom is choosing what to do with it.
Another aphorism about the difference is Ian Malcolm’s quote from Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn't stop to think if they should.” In most of Michael Crichton’s novels, technologists in general are high on the scale for knowledge but low on the one for wisdom.
I’m stepping closer than I like to the swamp of whether there are “things people were never meant to know;” there’s some charm to the notion that if we don’t learn something, someone else will, and possibly to our detriment. Instead I’d like to focus on something else: the capacity for seeing alternatives. If you’re going to make good decisions, you need to be able to see the choices.
When I was a teenager I read Empire Star by Samuel R. Delaney, where he described people’s differing ability to deal with multiple possibilities. The following is the understanding of the concepts he presented that I developed over the years since then; it may not be the same as what Delaney actually meant.
- Simplex minds see only one possibility, either rejecting others without thought, or
not even recognizing them in the first place. I
put a lot of anti-science groups in this category, at least with
respect to their hot-button issues.
- Complex minds can see more than one point of view, perhaps even a
spectrum of possibilities between them, but only one “axis” of
variation. The classic
left/right division in politics is like this, at least when people
accept that someone in a different point on the scale isn’t
deluded or evil.
- Mutliplex minds see
that there are many axes, many semi-independent ways of looking at
something, multiple ways to compare the possibilities.
Other people have the challenge of instilling professional ethics in our students. When a customer asks for a piece of software, the common technological focus of many software people simply deals with how to do it, not whether it should be done at all. Professions are supposed to have both a body of knowledge and a set of ethics: guidelines for how to make good choices, usually having to to with protecting the public from harm. In our curriculum, like many others, the subject is crammed into a single course. Maybe that’s too narrow a place to try to instill wisdom.