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What is wisdom?

I was intrigued by physorg.com’s May 7th wisdom article, although I don’t think it actually illuminates much.  The article basically reports the results of a survey, informing us of what the respondents thought were the most obvious characteristics of wisdom in a human, i.e.:

  • It is uniquely human.
  • It is a form of advanced cognitive and emotional development that is experience-driven.
  • It is a personal quality, albeit rare.
  • It can be learned, increases with age and can be measured.
  • It is probably not enhanced by taking medication.

And then there’s the tagline:  Compassion. Self-understanding. Morality. Emotional stability.

That’s all well and good, but just describes wisdom without defining it.

I think there are two dimensions to this question:  What is wisdom in a general sense?  What is Wisdom in a human sense?

IMHO, the definitive characteristic of wisdom is this:  In solving a problem or making a decision, a wise solution/person will consider a  bigger picture than an unwise (or less wise) solution/person.  Let’s dive deeper…

In an general sense:  wisdom (lower case) is a characteristic of problem solving in which:

  • The problem solving process considers a broader set of factors in defining/shaping/limiting the problem and possible solutions
  • A broader set of consequences are considered in defining the success criteria

For a  given problem, each variable/factor/possible outcome is interrelated to others, which are related to further variables/factors/possible outcomes that cascade away from the core problem/choice in a network of interrelated consequences.  If we think of this ‘network of consequences’ as a social-network-type graph, then we can say that each decision considers factors within a certain degree of separation.

In the abstract sense, then, decision A is wiser than decision B if A considers more factors/consequences to more degrees of separation than B:  It literally considers a bigger picture.

The ‘consequence network’ can be very complex:  it can consider more factors; more types of factors or problem dimensions; effects that may be further out in time; effects in areas that seem, on the surface, to be unrelated to the original problem; etc.  (More specifically, the nodes in the graph represent members of multiple object classes, and the lines represent members of multiple relationship classes – in other words, this is an ontology.)   These all boil down to considering factors further down the dependency chains that start at the core problem factors (at more degrees of separation on the dependency graph.)

Wisdom is an optimization problem:  Note the following:

  • Increasing the wisdom of a decision does not simply mean increasing the number of considerations – it means optimizing the number of considerations.  I think of this as finding the right context for a making a decision/solving a problem.
  • A wise decision requires a wise  judgement of which considerations should be included.  This means that wisdom must be ‘analytically recursive’ in order to be effective.
  • Including too many considerations hides the critical dependencies, and including too much analytical recursion leads to ‘paralysis by analysis’
  • Combining these points shows us that a wise problem solver must understand and apply the right amount of analytical recursion (analysis of the analysis) to the right considerations to find the right context.

In a human context:  Humans are biologically defined to be social creatures – metaphorically and literally hard-wired to our brothers and sisters.  The feelings of (psychologically normal) humans are affected by the feelings of those around them: we are happier when other people like us, admire us, are pleased with us, etc., than when they are not.  Therefore, when a human (living among humans) makes a decision, human factors and interdependencies will always drive consequences that will affect the decider.

In this sense, a wise decision will take into account how the decision will affect other people – near and far on the social graph – their lives, alternatives, choices and feelings, because  human lives, alternatives, choices and feelings all affect each other to a degree proportional to the degree of separation. How those around us feel about a solution/decision/outcome can negate or multiply the value of an outcome.  This is why win-win situations are valued, and to be sought.  Therefore…

In the Human sense:  Wisdom (upper case) is a characteristic of a human problem solver in which:

  • The human problem solver understands that all problems/decisions exist not only in a utilitarian context, but always also in a human context, and considers the lives, alternatives, choices and feelings of his/her fellows side-by-side with the practical considerations
  • The human problem solver understands that win-win situations are value multipliers, and incorporates this fact when finding the optimal problem/decision context


  • A wise decision is one in which the best-value context is found before a decision is made
  • A Wise decision is one in which a human problem-solver includes human emotions/social factors in finding the best-value context
  • A Wise person is one who knows that both statements above are true, and applies that knowledge

So what about the tagline?  Compassion, Self-Understanding, Morality, Emotional Stability?  IMHO, these are correlated, but not definitive characteristics of wisdom.

  • If Alice focuses on cold, utilitarian practicality, those that know her may describe her as having become ‘wiser’ if she starts being more compassionate and moral in her decision contexts.
  • If Bob is passionate about being compassionate and moral, those that know him may describe him as having become ‘wiser’ if he begins to include more pragmatic considerations in his decision contexts.
  • Both Alice and Bob may then be described by those who know them to have become more emotionally stable in the process.
  • (Self-understanding, IMHO, is not required to apply wisdom, but is almost always acquired along the way.)

So wisdom is about balance.  An analytical approach that balances the pragmatic and the human in the problem context is the key to Wisdom.

What about age?  ‘Popular wisdom’ is that humans are more likely to be Wise later in life.  I think that this simply means that, if you’re paying attention in life, these truths will become obvious to you – at least intuitively.  It took me more than 30 years to understand these truths, and more than that to internalize them  🙂

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