February 6, 2015


Where are the wise?

Two books I have read recently have had a massive impact on me: Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto). And insights gleaned from both underscore the question of this piece: in the 21st century, who can we look to for wisdom?

Part of Taleb’s thesis is that education (in the formal, university-based sense) does not create the ideas that lead to the technology that our cultures benefit and profit from; or that there is a low correlation; rather, on his account it is dropouts from university like Steve Jobs who do the creating—and that the process of innovation (not just an idea, but bringing it to market, more widely) requires a vast array of additional skills that education only tangentially touches upon, if at all. The main tool of innovation is trial and error—not complex theories. “Tinkering” is a word Taleb uses often. The further point is that increasing access to education (individually or collectively) does not increase the wisdom of those so schooled either—if anything, it reduces the capacity for novel or independent thinking by schooling more rigorously in any discipline. Back in 1970, Neil Postman claimed that “universities are suffering from a hardening of the categories” and that trend has increased. The most novel ideas occur at the interstices between disciplines, yet in this era of outcome-directed research (where “relevance” has to be demonstrated if funding is to be bestowed), interdisciplinary research is becoming rarer.

This claim against the alleged value of formal education (claimed by universities, mostly, but implicitly valued by most Westerners) is made amid a much broader salvo aimed at the traditional holders of wisdom in our modern culture who are the products of these systems (like the head of the Reserve Bank of the US, or Nobel-prize winning economists, or senior academics, or…), and he demonstrates conclusively that most of the “wise” are anything but. For example, not one of the involved parties was able to predict the two recent financial crises that wreaked havoc globally, and all experts relied on predictive modelling but without grasping the huge potential errors that are inherent in this process. Taleb argues persuasively that the assumptions of modelling more generally simply cannot grasp, hence predict, the outlier (or “tail”) events that can have such a destructive impact. His suggestions? Minimise downside (risk or exposure); maximise upside (or potential gain); and get out of debt.

It is not about Taleb’s brilliant thesis I wish to talk about today, though; I mention these two book simply because they have made me think about a number of my embedded beliefs (and hence unexamined until recently). As an aside, I feel that all one’s most deeply held beliefs need to be dusted off and looked at critically—especially deeply cherished ones!

Traditionally (here I mean pre-industrial humans, brilliantly drawn in Harari’s wonderful book Sapiens), wisdom was held to exist in the collective memories of the elderly. Proof of that wisdom was held to be embodied in the old, still existing, humans and that their very existence was sufficient evidence of it! This no longer obtains in any Western culture, though traces may be found in those few groups where generations live under the one roof or in close neighbourhoods. And part of this trend, no doubt, comes from the twin celebration of two concepts, “individual” and “freedom”. This has come at considerable cost, as well as benefit. In most Western cultures, the elderly are ignored as non-productive, and are experienced as a burden—and they are moved out of view into assisted housing or worse. Canteen-grade pap is fed to them; they are largely isolated and they are assisted in dying as neatly as possible, in a way that creates as little inconvenience as possible for their survivors. And that most significant of passages for each of us is sanitised to the nth degree (recorded music in the background; unctuous intermediaries to the fore—and so often these people have not even met the deceased).

Can we look to politicians for wisdom? Or the clergy? There might have been the odd statesman or woman in earlier eras, but it’s hard to think of one… And when I recall the reverence with which my grandmother spoke of the role of the priests in her rural, Irish life, where they were universally held to be wise (by believers, in any case) it is difficult to reconcile her views what we see and hear today.

So where do we look for wisdom? It’s clear, I think, that it will not be to Facebook or Twitter, or prime-time TV, or newspapers in any form. In fact, the sheer proliferation of information is itself a problem, and that problem has concerned many thinkers since it was identified—philosophy, according to the ancient Greeks, is properly concerned with distinguishing between episteme and doxa (truth and opinion). In the face of an information barrage available at the click of a mouse, sorting the wheat from the chaff is harder than ever before, I feel—what the Greeks identified as the pressing question of their day remains.

The problem is deeper than this, though: there is an asymmetry of respect for kinds of knowledge, or skills: since Miss O and I have been closer to the processes of building a house than ever before, it struck me recently that the more abstracted the knowledge, the more it is valued in our culture—yet when watching someone lay a row of bricks, or apply paint to a wall, it’s clear that immense practical/tactile skills are involved—why are these skills so undervalued in our culture? On another axis, why are university lecturers paid so much more than kindergarten teachers? (A personal aside: in the Stretch Therapy system, only the most experienced teachers get to work with beginners, because I believe that beginners, like young children, need the best teachers—the initial interactions literally set the context of how the beginner relates to the processes of learning itself). If that experience is benign, or positive, the beginner learns to teach herself—and once that is achieved, the attitude to learning, as well as the learning experience, is altered forever. The beginner learns to learn by herself and, as I have said many times, as teachers, our goal is to render ourselves unnecessary in this way.

The fact that the capacity for abstract thought is valued over practical skills is at the heart of many of modern civilisation’s ills, it seems to me. And this is what’s behind the blindnesses Taleb identifies in Antifragile: the further you get from hands-on making of things, the more inherently unreliable the constructions—necessarily increasingly mental or conceptual—become. This is simply because when you work at the hands-on level of constructing, the materials themselves are a real constraint on what can be done.  I feel we need a return to a more master/apprentice approach to learning; the term “master” (and mestre, maître, or maestro share the same root, and are gender neutral) simply means someone who has mastered a skill; invariably this means embodiment of physical capacities as well as having an understanding of a discipline. Embodiment is missing from much of the knowledge that our culture values and this is one of our deepest problems. Not coincidentally, the same asymmetry is at the heart of the difficulty one has in the search for wisdom. It is also the root of our present environmental problems: increasing distance from the source (both of what we use and the nature of which constrains us, if we pay attention). Modern mental constructions have enabled such distance from Reality (in the Wilden “big R” sense) that economists can describe the Earth’s capacity to absorb human waste as infinite—and thereby not appear as a cost on the balance sheet. How insane is this? I stop this thread here; I hope the direction is clear. As Korzybski noted so profoundly long ago: “The map is not the territory.”

My personal journey in seeking wisdom within the realms of academia ended with well-funded PhD research (I was looking at the limits to science and logic); a breakthrough came one day when I realised that these disciplines have literally nothing useful to say about the experiences of daily life and how to make these experiences more real. The same disciplines were completely silent on how to live a more authentic life, too, and when I realised that I did not have much of my life left (one of the advantages of entering university as a mature student) I decided to look elsewhere.

I have been extremely fortunate in having met, and spent considerable time with, a number of remarkable teachers. The teachers I refer to here work in the ‘spiritual’ realm (this term is even more fraught than the term ‘traditional’, but for the purpose of this note, by “spiritual”, I mean inward looking and contemplative in direction), the direct opposite to scientific, whose purview is outward and whose intent is to uncover the nature of, and structure of, the world we live in. And it’s not coincidental that the perspective that science explicitly proscribes is the subjective (I will not go into the subjective–objective distinction here, except to say that any individual’s most important information and direct experience on a day-today basis will be found in the former and not the latter domain).

There is a long tradition that holds that contemplation and/or meditation can be a reliable method to uncover wisdom—held to be inherent in us all and which will manifest once various ‘obscurations’ are removed. And this may well be so—but which school; which teacher; which lineage? A partial solution to this problem is offered by Buddhism, in a three-part combination of the teaching itself (damma); the historical figure of the Buddha himself (how he lived; what he said) and a group of like-minded people who are interested in the same (sangha)—the Triple Gem. I feel the last part, the group of like-minded individuals, is a crucial element that is missing for many people in today’s world—face-to-face interaction with people you care about. Facebook does not count! (For brevity, I mention only Buddhism here, but other ‘direct realisation’ schools, like Daoism, or the Tantric schools of Yoga offer similar approaches.)

So—where am I going with all this? At the most fundamental, I am arguing for the necessity of embodiment of knowledge as a precursor to wisdom. Embodiment is a physical/mental process, and we know something about this.

We are stardust, Billion year old carbon,
We are golden, Caught in the devil’s bargain,
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.
(Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”, 1970)

It’s an old song. Comments very welcome.

Update: I perhaps should have read past p. 375 in Antifragility before writing this note; embodiment is what Taleb goes on to elaborate in his discussion of “skin in the game’, and the relationship between antifragility and ethics. Same idea; and better done in his book! Please read the original; it is the best book I have read in 20 years.

My thanks to Dave Wardman for insightful comments, and Miss O for correcting a typo or two; any remaining silliness is my fault.

And you may care to read Dave’s earlier pieces on his blog that inspired this one:




“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”, by Yuval Harari

“Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto)”, by Nassim Taleb

“System and Structure”, Anthony Wilden

“Science and Sanity”, Alfred Korzybski

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