As humans have evolved over the years, there is no doubt we now understand a lot of things that we did not understand before. The advancement of our scientific knowledge of the universe is simply amazing. We can communicate around the globe at a click of the button. We can study the chemical composition of the stars. We can even analyse the smallest components of the atoms we’re made of. But what I want to talk about in this post is the distinction between wisdom and knowledge, and how they are different from each other.
If you look up the definition of both words on google, you will find no clear distinction between them. But there is a distinction. First let’s look at knowledge. What is it?
Well seeing as it originates in the mind, knowledge must consist of beliefs, because the mind operates solely via beliefs. Knowledge consists of those particular beliefs a person hold which correspond to reality. In other words, beliefs that are true. How do we know what is true? Well we can really only rely on the reasonings (justifications) which our life experiences provide us with, which is why different people having had different experiences will believe different things are true. Even the results of scientific studies or mathematical equations are still examples of people coming to conclusions based on their life experiences. So the person with the largest and most connected network of logical reasonings on a given topic can be said to have the most knowledge on that topic.
But if you have a close look at those people in society which seem to have a vast amount of knowledge, you will sometimes find that they are very much lacking in wisdom. And some of the people who seem to be very wise may not have a large amount of scientific knowledge at their disposal. So what is the difference? What do I mean by this?
Wisdom is a certain type of knowledge, just as knowledge is a certain type of belief. It is knowledge of the true nature of reality, and our existence as humans. It is not do to with having knowledge of the specifics of the universe’s small components and their behaviour, but rather having knowledge of what all those components are doing in the big picture. How do they all add up? What is truly taking place in life? What is the system of life all about? Wisdom is a developed awareness which allows a person to look beyond a superficial threat to recognise a more important beneficial factor or reason for things unfolding the way they do. Wisdom is the factor which neutralises fear and allows people to psychologically survive what they witness.
For example let’s say you have a very smart individual who specialises in theoretic physics and has won many awards and much recognition for his/her work. Now obviously this person would have a lot of knowledge about the the way the universe works (or at least you might assume that). But now let’s consider that during one of his lectures, he makes a huge mistake in calculations, and ends up making a fool of himself in front of his students and peers. Maybe afterwards one of his peers laughs and sneers at him. Well what would he do? That would depend on his level of wisdom. If he understood that there was obviously no shame in making the mistake since such an outcome was the inevitable product of the universe’s existence, he might help educate his peer to understand the same. He might even be thankful to be offered such a great opportunity to explain to his peers how to measure personal value, and that such value is never under threat due to the events taking place in life. If he was seriously lacking in wisdom, he might view the situation as threat against his self esteem, and start think he must make sure such mistakes never happen again. He might be so anxious to prevent the mistake that he has an anxiety attack at his next lecture. He might make an even bigger fool of himself, and people might start to think “he’s lost it”. Maybe his career slows to a halt. What then? Well all those events would definitely be helping him to gain wisdom, because despite all his knowledge of physics, he was still not aware of the most basic functional characterises of the activity in the universe. He was there thinking that the components of the universe are somehow in competition with each other, and that some components can be deemed worthless just because the they follow a trajectory which other components don’t like. He did not understand that all components of the universe are deemed valuable because of the automatic and unavoidable influence they have on the system.
For another example, let’s look at the human body – a healthy one. Let’s look at an analogy. Try pretending for a minute that you are a cell within the human body, called Doug. Yes this might sound odd, but bear with me. If you are a cell within the body, and you’re going about your activities as a cell, you might start a conversation with another cell – we”ll call her Cecilia. Let’s say Cecilia is very interested in gaining knowledge about the activity going on all around her. So she starts asking questions and experimenting. She starts comparing all the cells around her and seeing how relate in size. She starts looking at their unique shapes. She observes how they interact with each other. She measures how long they take to move a given distance. She measures how much this speed changes. She tests what happens when she exerts a force on another cell. She even slices up a cell thousands and thousands of times to see what’s it is made up of. And so she ends up with a huge bank of information and facts about her surroundings. She finds she can use this information to make predictions, and invent technology to make her tasks as a cell easier.
And she says to you “Doug, I am very wise – look at all of this knowledge I have!”.
But then you turn to her and you reply “Well that’s very impressive Cecilia. But I have a question for you. What do you think we’re doing here?
Cecilia looks puzzled, but but she insists “well there isn’t really a purpose to our existance, all we can do is measure things and come up with numbers and statistics and use them to make our life better! Life is what you make it! We’re all unique and have to make up our own life purpose.”
You stare at her quite fondly and answer. “Oh really, that’s interesting. But what criteria are you using to judge whether your life is getting “better” or not?”
Cecillila thinks for a few minutes. “Well it’s getting better when it’s more like how we want it to be. Did you see that skin cell the other day? He dissapeared off the edge of the world. I don’t like that at all, he was my friend. Maybe we can make it so no more skin cells dissapear. That would be much better.”
You start smiling. “But what if the skin cells are just doing their job? What if they’re playing their role in the system?”
Cecillia has a look of distaste. “System? What system Doug? Are you saying there’s some kind of higher power? That’s a load of rubbish. I’ll believe it when I see it. Those poor skin cells deserve better!”
You sigh. Then start to reply. “Cecillia, you can see it. A system is a collection of parts. We are a collection of parts. We are working together, whether we like it or not, all influencing each other in order to bring about that which this system is producing. We are all valuable to the system, and receiving our needs from the system. Due to cause and effect we go about our activities for as long as we are meant to before the next generation of cells takes over, with our every action being controlled by our unique array of influences. That is the understanding which is missing from your knowledge. That is what defines the reality of our lives as cells. To understand that is to have wisdom.”