Knowledge, Wisdom and Moral Action
I love learning. The World Wide Web is like a candy store for my brain. There is so much at my fingertips laid out virtually in front of me. I could browse through Wikipedia endlessly discovering new sites and learning new ideas and skills. Interesting links from one web page lead to another and another. I’m also aware of the ever-expanding knowledge – much of it now available online. What we know about expands at an exponential rate along with the digitization of what we already know. Young people need to know so much more than I did at their age to function in today’s workplace.
Knowledge is power. I remember a large sign I saw on the side of a building in inner city Oakland. It said, “Knowledge is power. Stay in school.” Knowledge has given us incredible power to manipulate and control the world. Information systems, technology, engineering and scientific developments allow us to be creative at the scale from nanometers to kilometers. We are the verge of developing quantum computing that depends on quantum effects at the subatomic level. In China, they can build an entire hospital in a matter of weeks. Diseases are cured and crops changed to protect against pests by directly manipulating the genome of organisms. We have amazing capacity for transformation and change.
What I worry about is the lag in wisdom to keep up with our advance in understanding.
The difference between knowledge and wisdom is very important. Knowledge describes the facts, information and skills one accumulates through experience and education be it theoretical or practical. This kind of knowing is independent of the knower or the application. Energy being equal to mass times acceleration squared is an abstract bit of knowing independent of what can be done with it. The entire sequence of the human genome is just a long sequence of a set of four amino acids stored in a database. The chemical formula for explosive material is just a fact. So is what it takes to initiate nuclear fission.
What we do with that knowledge is something else. That’s where wisdom comes in.
Wisdom goes beyond knowledge to judgement about how that knowledge is used. Wisdom guides the decision making and action based on adding a moral dimension. Is this decision or action good, right, useful or appropriate? What will the consequences be? What is the value, or reason for that decision or action? Wisdom asks, “What does the decision or action mean for my life and for yours?”
The Internet and the World Wide Web has facilitated the widespread distribution of knowledge. What they haven’t done good a job of is making us wise. Early on, those of us promoting the electronic communication revolution thought that the more we knew about each other the more we’d see our commonalities and the result would be a more peaceful world. We didn’t anticipate the ability of people to create silos and echo chambers to have their current biases validated. The wisdom of how to use all the knowledge available is out of balance with the power the knowledge offers us.
And that is profoundly dangerous to the future of humanity on this planet.
The question I’m focused on is how we can encourage people to be and become wise and increase the wisdom in the world population. Older people tend to be wiser through life experience. Younger people have the most knowledge as their access to the Internet is the widest. I’m wondering if building cross generational connections can help in the transfer of wisdom from the old to the young.
One place that happens is in congregations like ours. Religious communities are great places for the old and the young to be together and share what they know and share their wisdom together. There aren’t that many non-hierarchical, egalitarian spaces for people to meet and learn from each other.
May our congregation be a place where we can all become wiser together. It is worthy of your support!