Humanity is on a journey. There may be no answer to the question of why we embarked on this journey to self awareness, but we do know to some extent what came before. Man before technology, like our pre-human cousins share a lot with each other and to different degrees with all related organisms. This observation can be made detailed in the biological sciences. Genetically we share a lot with yeast as compared with simpler micro-organisms. The central questions of this book revolve around the fact that we only recently come to know all of this in any deep way and that the accumulated practical effects of this knowledge place us at a certain crossroads of history. Wisdom is in the title not because the book makes any claim to contain great wisdom but to call into question the value of qualities like intelligence and knowledge vs. wisdom, whatever that might be. Wisdom must be more than simply anticipatory. There is a great abyss between what we can have knowledge of and what is possible. The limits of human knowledge and understanding does not limit the behavior of nature and natural systems. Wisdom is to be found beyond the horizons of discovered truths, reguardless of how extensive.
Living systems and even complex automatons can be shown to be beyond analysis in important ways, and therefore they can exhibit powers that are magical in the sense of being beyond analysis, but not in the sense that require the intervention of gods or spirits in the normal causal flow of events. It is a critical observation that the hypothesis of God is unnecessary and even unwelcome in scientific work. Although methodologically excluded, the question of God's existance is in no way prejudiced, it just isn't part of science. The hypothesis that God does not exist is not even valid for science; it is outside of its scope because it cannot be decided in any way besides assuming the conclusion. The arrogant stance that results in extreme forms of idealism and logical positivism involves a triumphant view of man's early discoveries. The "Oh what a good boy am I!" effect. The rule to always question your results, get peer review since we are bad at finding flaws in our out thoughts. When religious or scientific authority becomes ancored by tradition and can no longer be questioned because it is enforced by the excercise of power, then wisdom is out the window.
We will leave the debates about science vs. religion behind while steering clear of both scientism and religious beliefs. These debates are always asking the wrong questions and confusing important distictions. Take religion without dogmatic beliefs and understood as social processes the bind social communities. There is evidence that religion helps people life better lives within engaged communities, but unfortunately in the modern world it becomes political, binding people into competing communities when the great global social need is to find common ground and effectively bind the many communities into a global whole.
We need a ground for discovering the open future in which wisdom can fully flower. Securing the future is much more than knowing what is coming; more importantly it is being able to make good collective decisions. Plato suggested we should have philosopher kings running the show, which might be a good idea if you could come up with a workable selection process that could guarantee the necessary qualities of experience and wisdom in sufficient quantity. If wisdom is something like being able to make the decision that you would make based on being able to know the outcome we would need to know the outcomes for all the paths not followed, and knowing the outcomes, how do we even compare? Is wisdom being concerned about other species becoming extinct and the environment threatened based solely on self-interest, must it also include compassion for all of our fellow living beings? How could it be otherwise?
When a culture is healthy, the religious practices will integrate with the social processes that organize all aspects of daily life. There are still many healthy indiginous cultures that have evolved what can only be called wisdom practices that maintain both the natural environment and its productive capacities, and also the social cohesion of the culture. Unfortunately, these integrated social systems are under threat from outside forces often driven be evangelistic religion the aims to supplant what they define as savagery or devil worship. This is where we say, there is no wisdom in these processes. Wisdom is in respect for diversity and otherness.
There are further difficulties. For instance, if we are only recently self-aware, our emergence can be little more than a cosmic accident. Can there be a wisdom of Gaia that guides the long-term development of the living Earth that knew that the age of the dinosaurs had to end in order for mammals and eventually humans to emerge? Wisdom is realizing that even though such questions can never be answered definitively, that the ways we have answered it throughout history and in oral traditions dating back from pre-history are not wrong for having used magical explanations for the parts they could not understand. It is just that the modern analytic tradition often chooses to ignore the bits of their theories that amount to little more than hand-waving. Is the best explanation regarding some deep theory of the emergence of intelligence and maybe even wisdom a variation of intelligent design or anthropic principle? I'm inclined to look for wisdom in the origin stories and epistemic traditions of all ages and peoples; to respect the insight of artists and mystics as deeply as we respect the insights provided by math and science. The only deep requirement it to question all of it, to never rest satisfied with only the ready answer.
One of the broad arcs that will develop concerns the history of ideas. It starts with the Greeks and Plato's idealism and it continues in the clockwork universe models inspired by Descarte and later the logical positivists. Although we owe a great many debts to Plato and the Greeks for making some of the most important early steps on the journey, there are some deep problems with philosophies descended from them. There is a kind of fundamentalism in maintaining that ideas and geometric forms are more basic to reality than experience. It is ironic that science only really takes off when working scientists are able to go beyond what is conventional and given by a pre-existing understanding and to trust only experience and measurement. The worst of logical positivism becomes a kind of fundamentalism that cannot stand and leads to errors of logic at the deepest levels. to say that the given is beyond formalism is not to invoke a god of the gaps or other magical explaination. By definition, any hypothesis invoking god is not science. Further, just because we don't need any gods to explain any regularity of the world doesn't mean that all forms of spiritualism are false.
We'll need to take a pragmatic view of the real in order to interpret this. For a pragmatist, things are real by virtue of being the subject of knowledge, and knowledge is pragmatic in the sense of being for the sake of action. If everyone in your community believes in God, then God is real for them. I don't know that your experience of green, its quality of experience, is the same as mine, but it points to a shared experience. There are experiences that we might call mysterious or spiritual, and to the extent these experiences can be shared give us a conceptual foundation for these subjects. This gives them a reality even if that reality is provisional on the unreliability of the important qualia used to relate the experiences. They can vary quite a bit between cultures over both time and space.
Even if we resist all such provisional attempts as ultimately devoid of any real knowledge or truth; that we find the concepts to be empty of content, we still have to find a way to ground a system of value. We need to define the good in universal terms, but there always be an element that is ultimately grounded more in the particulars of a cultural aesthetic or spiritual experience than anything that can be said to be fundamentally universal.
Pragmatists starting with Pierce and give a much better account than simple idealism. Idealists right down to the logical positivists are always overly optimistic about the potential applicability and effectiveness of their methods. Solve some simple math problems and you can calculate the world equation that will exactly map the future faithfully and fatefully. The pragmatists don't make the mistake of confusing their models with the world as given. Ideas and formalisms are important because they are important to our minds, to our ways of knowing and interpreting the world. That the formalisms (maths) we discover turn out to be useful in understanding and predicting the world, and gaining fine control over the material conditions of our lives follows from its pragmatic methods. The effectiveness of formal methods in working out practical consequences is undeniable, but just as undeniable is that the abyss beyond the knowable is itself unknowable and vast.
Technology considered historically is the subject of material culture in the field of anthropology. We can be characterized by this as the technological animal. You could point to our language as the unique characteristic, but it is clear that technology and language are linked capacities even if you consider them distinct as language could be seen as our first technology. In this book, we will trace the path of parts of the journey, often in ways that are more poetic and synthetic than scientific and analytic. The most interesting and crucial parts of the journey involve questions of how we know about the world. We notice that we are at a point in this journey where we are just discovering most of what we know.
The analytic approach to knowing that is so successful in both expanding the frontier of what we know. All the technological wonders and a rapidly changing material culture is accelerating with now apparent end in sight . Further, this kind of change is recent in a way that is independent of scale. Whether we look at decades, centuries, millinnia, we see the same thing; look back one or two units at a given scale and you will see that now is really different than before. This could be an illusion of perspective obliquely related to some form of anthropic principle, but we can test that. If we go back 1000 years, we see a lot of change, even catastrophic change over years and decades, but the material culture was not changing like it is now. My grandfather told us stories of the first car coming to town, and commercial jet travel evolved from having no technology for flight at all in his lifetime.
The authors of Genesis capture this pretty well in the story about the garden. Man, in a state of nature, like his great ape cousins and other close relatives found in the fossil record is in the garden in ecstatic union with his environment. Prior to the fall from grace so conveniently blamed on Eve, what came before is animal intelligence built on genetic intelligence. These are the grounds for all the presumably uniquely human forms of knowing, awareness and even wisdom. This foundation is deep and wide, and the reality of what we can observe is simply awe inspiring. Clearly the living systems of the earth got on for billions of years without this feature of mankind, so it isn't completely clear what we are needed for.
Now that we have left the Garden, we have the responsibility to partner with God (in Judeo Christian language) to find wisdom practices that maybe restore the Garden. Though we can never restore the innocence we had before starting on the paths of knowledge, we can contemplatively re-enter that state of bliss of being fully part of the natural world. We now know what we are doing to the natural world and need to find ways to re-enchant the world. We need wisdom more than knowledge.
Several arcs will wind their way through this book as most of it will be about human language, culture and technology in order to focus on the opportunities and risks posed by the development of a technological species.
When did we start telling creation stories?
Limits of knowledge, from Plato to Logical Positivism: Failure (general) and success (limited)
Beyond the limits: not all schools of wisdom are thus limited, what else can we know and how do we know it?
The past and the future: On being pragmatic: How should one evaluate consequences