And, what is wisdom? In several prior-to-last installments of curiosity, I raised the question of what is wrong with humanity that could explain our current set of predicaments. I have suggested that wisdom is lacking. That is, a level of wisdom, among the common individual, that would allow for good judgment to be the rule rather than the exception seems to be missing. I mentioned several forms that wisdom takes in the psychological studies done to date. It is recognized as a valid psychological construct but one that has not received anywhere near the attention that has been given, first, to intelligence and then to creativity. But that seems to be changing as more and more psychologists (and educators, thankfully) are recognizing wisdom's role in social life.
But what is wisdom actually? When I asked that question I found myself mired in too much anecdotal and religiously-motivated stories — the attributes of wise people through the ages. I don't discount this collection of ideas as having value, especially as examples of wisdom at work. But it isn't explanatory. Just saying that certain people acted thus and so and everyone lived happily ever after doesn't get at the real questions: Where does wisdom come from in the mind? And why don't more people achieve this mental state?
A critical problem with the wisdom concept is that it really consists of two major components. The first is the tacit, life knowledge that is needed to make holistic judgments about complex social problems. One has to live a long time, be exposed to many similar (yet different) life situations, and have internalized the results of various decisions and actions in order to have a rich knowledge base of experience. One must have become an expert in LIFE by living through many aspects of it. The second component is the brain power that enables both the acquisition of this life knowledge and the processing of current situations, applying sound moral judgements to resolve the problems. The latter may be confused with intelligence, but this is a huge mistake. Processing power for both acquisition and use of knowledge is definitely dependent on normal intelligence (vice genius-level intelligence); learning, organizing memories, and recall of relationships is a normal function of intelligence. But judgment is much more than this.
We now recognize that the limbic system (affect) of the brain plays a crucial role in decision making. We do not make decisions strictly on the basis of rational choice. Rather, the affective centers of our brains, the emotional centers, exercise considerable influence on choices we make. Indeed, much of intelligence is mobilized to rationalize our decisions after our feelings have forced us toward our choices! But affect is not the only subconscious mechanism guiding our decision processes. The problem with affective-based choice is that it is literally mindless. We may react emotionally to many aspects of life, but we do have an ability to exercise second thoughts and override pure emotion. We can exercise some rationality in guiding decisions if we have life experiences that provide better guidance. That is what judgment is.
More advanced mammals evolved brains that include a 'second thought' control center (believed to reside in the anterior cingulate cortex in early mammals) that can at least inhibit our first, emotionally-guided reactions in order to allow the thinking part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) to assess the situation more thoroughly and possibly direct different behavior than might have occurred based on the limbic (e.g. the amygdala) trigger. In other words, mammals have two guidance systems to direct and assist the decision processes going on in the rest of the cortex. The limbic response control is based on evolutionary (what is called phyletic) memory; thin wiggly things on the forest floor are probably dangerous. The judgment control is based on life-time acquired experience. Limbic control has come to be more of a fall-back default response in the event life hasn't given you the experiences needed to make a good judgment. But judgment is going to produce the more optimal behavior if it is backed up with knowledge.
In human evolution this capacity to allow life experience-based judgment to guide or shape decision processing (and this includes the role of creativity along with intelligence) has expanded especially in the realm of social interactions. I think it may have found an especially strong selection pressure in the advent of grand parents in which better judgments were used to better ensure the reproductive successes of early Homo. Older people, past reproductive age, still had a group-selection effect on evolution.
I have called the brain/mental capacity to achieve wisdom (good moral judgment) as sapience (I suspect strongly that the seat of this capacity is in an area called Brodmann Area 10 — the polar-most frontal patch of prefrontal cortex, right behind the eyebrows!). Like intelligence and creativity, sapience is a capacity rather than a realization. Individuals with greater propensities for any of these three capacities may or may not ever achieve their level of competency based on purely historical accident.
Here is a diagram of what I think the human condition amounts to at this point in evolution.
Each oval represents, roughly, a domain of cognition or affect. They overlap because they all work together in some respects to produce the unitary mind of phenomenal experience. Note that affect is still a predominant feature of the mind in this representation. I think, based on observations of human nature, that that is a safe claim. Next in influence is the intelligence that most people think of in characterizing human mentation. This is the capacity — general problem solving ability — that expanded most rapidly over the last 250,000 years of hominid evolution. Creativity is of modest influence in most peoples lives. We are all creative to some degree but except for in the lives of artists and such it is not terribly dominant in the thinking process. Finally we see the influence of sapience - judgment processing capability.
There is reason to believe (and I will cover this in a future blog) that sapience, in being the most "recent" development in the evolution of cognition, is not as well developed as, say, intelligence. But moreover, it is not distributed normally (like the normal distribution of intelligence, say). There is reason to believe that sapience is generally weak in the majority of the population with only a few individuals having higher sapience capacity. This would explain why wisdom is so rare. I should point out that the level of sapience needed to manage one's life in a family or tribe is about what we should expect to have evolved up to, say, 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. In other words, about what we have today as the norm.
The real problem is that in our cleverness we have created a world, the cognitive scope of which is far beyond family and tribe, that would seem to demand tremendously more wisdom than the average human can muster. Even our so-called leaders cannot seem to exercise good judgment when it comes to world affairs.
So are we screwed? Is there no sufficient wisdom in this world to provide guidance out of our follies? I wish I knew! One thing for sure: Wisdom cannot rise unless it is recognized as wisdom by the followers. Therein lies the rub. If the masses are incapable of recognizing wisdom (they'd rather have a beer with George W. Bush) how will they accede to following the guidance? Now that is really the question.