An Overview of Wise
Perspectives, or "Wise Ways of Seeing"
by Copthorne Macdonald
Wisdom is a kind of meta-knowledge that helps us make better sense of
the rest of our knowledge. Ordinary knowledge is fact centered. Wisdom
is meaning centered. Wisdom finds meaning in factual knowledge by relating
it to a variety of contexts and by viewing it from a variety of illuminating
perspectives. Ultimately, meaningful understanding combines with wise
values to create wise action. The perspectives I'm talking about are ways
of looking at the raw data of life that deepen our understanding and reveal
meaning. There are many of these. Here I'd like to introduce you to some
that have been important to me, and say a few things about them.
THE SELF-KNOWLEDGE PERSPECTIVE
Wise people understand themselves better than most people. They are aware
of their strengths and weaknesses, and have developed "workarounds"
to stay out of trouble. They've paid attention to how their own minds
work, and thus are better able to understand the mind processes of others.
THE LAWS-OF-NATURE PERSPECTIVE
We contemplate doing things in the physical world and ask ourselves: Will
this work? If I do this, what will happen? At times like these, an understanding
of basic physical laws can lead to better, wiser, decisions.
Wise people have developed a better-than-ordinary understanding of ramifications
and consequences. They are aware of general rules that apply in various
life situations. They understand, for instance, that sexual infidelity
almost always causes pain for someone. And they know that angry words
shut down communication. We rarely adopt other people's lists of dos and
don'ts, but if we come to see these things for ourselves they can help
guide our actions.
THE SYSTEM PERSPECTIVE
The system perspective on reality is a powerful tool for understanding
the world around us. Complexity in the natural world emerges as a hierarchy
of systems. Each system in this hierarchy is a whole at its own systemic
level and component in a system at the next level up the hierarchy. The
universe started with elementary particles that cooperated with each other
to form atoms. Atoms cooperate and create molecules. Molecules cooperate
and create crystals and living cells. Cells cooperate and create living
organisms - including very complex ones like human beings. Humans cooperate
and create those systems we call societies, economies, and nations. If
at any level in this hierarchy the component parts fail to function -
or fail to cooperate in the way the system requires - the system is damaged,
or even destroyed.
THE EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE
What is the universe up to? Where does humanity fit in? At the instant
of the Big Bang only energy existed. But in the the 14 billion years since
then, energy has taken form. It has cloaked itself with information, creating
increasingly complex patterns in space-time. And now we humans have gotten
into the act. The Chance-and-Necessity kind of evolution still operates
in the background. But in countless situations, mind-directed evolution
now overrides it. For better or worse - and very often worse - we humans
have become agents of evolution. If we want wisdom to guide our actions
in this arena we need to deepen our understanding of the cosmic and evolutionary
contexts in which humanity is embedded. We need to be able to look at
the human situation from this "big picture" vantage point.
THE COMPLEXITY-OF-CAUSATION PERSPECTIVE
There's a human tendency to simplify causation. We pick out some dominant
element in a situation and call it "The Cause," when in fact
there are myriad necessary elements - an entire causal matrix - with roots
that go back to the origin of the universe.
A PROBABILITY AND RISK PERSPECTIVE
We can make wiser decisions if we have a realistic sense of the probability
of various outcomes, and the risks involved in taking various actions.
Our guesstimates of risk are sometimes way off. Yet information on risk
is often available.
BROADENED-IDENTITY AND "ONENESS" PERSPECTIVES
As a person develops psychologically and spiritually, their sense of identity
tends to broaden. Their circle of concern and identification widens from
me, to us - and for a few, to the entire universe and its underlying ground.
THE FINITENESS-OF-LIFE PERSPECTIVE
Time is the raw material of our life, and a conscious awareness of our
eventual death helps us avoid life-wasting detours, and helps keep our
life on a meaningful track.
A HOST OF "HIGH-VALUES" PERSPECTIVES
The deeply-held values of wise people are vantage points from which to
view life situations and the world: Is this just? Is this truthful?
Is this caring and compassionate? And so forth.