The Wisdom Page 


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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.