The Science of Wisdom & The Wisdom of Science


For the purposes of this post, wisdom is neither a collection of trite adages, nor is it an accumulation of arcane or esoteric scripture. Wisdom is:

1.) the ability to quiet the mind

2.) the ability to suppress inclinations to be petty in a healthy way

3.) the ability to override instinct with conscious thought when it’s beneficial to do so

4.) the ability to know when it’s beneficial to do so (see #3)

5.) mastery of (rather than being mastered by) one’s emotions

The objective of these activities is to increase happiness, reduce strife, and exercise better and healthier decision-making.


While these are secular objectives, the pursuit of this form of wisdom has to a large extent become entwined with certain breeds of religion or spiritualism. Mystical religious traditions are the style of spiritualism that are most commonly associated with these pursuits. (Here I use mysticism in its scholarly sense, i.e. traditions that believe in a god or gods and who believe that the space in they can interact with said god is to be found inwardly. This is as opposed to the ill-defined colloquial meaning of mysticism that has a negative connotation and is infused with judgement about hippy-dippiness.) One sees the pursuit of this form of wisdom in yogic philosophy, in most branches of Buddhism, in Taoism, etc.


I’m not sure why this connection should be so entrenched. Why should agnostics and atheists forfeit the pursuit of such forms of personal improvement? Maybe the scientifically-minded think that they are knowledgeable and knowledge is wisdom, and so they think they are already on the path. I can tell you that knowledge isn’t wisdom. I base this on the experience of knowing intellectually brilliant people who couldn’t get along with anyone, who perpetually said the wrong things, and whose personal lives were a wreck. Skeptics and geeks are as subject to strained relationships, stress, and unhappiness as their pious neighbors.


Another possible explanation is that many scientifically-minded people just don’t think that such goals are achievable because the routes to them have too often been couched in supernatural terms.   However, there’s a growing literature on how these objectives can be pursued that is rooted in neuroscience and neuroplasticity, and for which the presence or absence of a deity is irrelevant.  I’ve been reading a book called Zen and the Brain lately that offers an understanding of the effects of meditation that is firmly rooted in the science of the brain. I also recently purchased a book entitled Buddha’s Brain that takes a look at how neuroplasticity allows for a “rewiring” the brain to a healthier state. (Yes, I realize the irony of citing two books that have religious references in their titles in this post. I’d argue that this is how inexorably tangled these pursuits have become with religion. However, both of the scientist/authors of the aforementioned books, James H. Austin and Rick Hanson, have books with more secular titles if you’d prefer.)

BuddhaBrain Zen&Brain


I was once eating in a university cafeteria when I heard a religious man make the argument to a fellow he was trying to “educate” that went like this:  “If there’s not a God, why should I be nice to my wife–why shouldn’t I kick the hell out of my dog?” My first thought was that this man desperately needed therapy. If the only reason he wasn’t being a violent asshole is because he feared the wrath of an invisible, omnipotent entity who–by they way–would have to be showing a complete indifference to what people do to each other in real-time, then he’s an accident waiting to happen. If he either: a.) loses his fear of said deity, or b.) begins to think that the deity is telling him to go another way (since whatever the deity is “telling” him is almost certainly just his mind telling him), then his wife and dog are in great peril.


My second thought was, “this is the cafeteria in an institution for higher learning, how’d this guy get in without at least the rudimentary training in logic to imagine a basis of moral behavior that’s not rooted in the supernatural smiting ability of a deity [who–I might add–sees a helluva lot of smite-worthy activity on a daily basis.]”


If you’re considering an action that seems questionable, you don’t need to ask what Jesus would do? You can start by asking the question: Would my life (or those of my loved ones) be adversely impacted by living in a world in which everybody did what I’m about to do in the manner I intend to do it? (Implied is the idea that, if the action in question involves doing something to someone, you would be subject to being on the receiving end of same action sooner or later.)   If the answer is “yes,” don’t do it. If the answer is “no” there still may be reasons not to do the activity that have to do with what is good for you personally. (We’ll get into that a little further down.)


I realize that the above standard isn’t perfect, but it’s far less subject to user error than WWJD and it explains why the fellow from above shouldn’t beat his wife or his dog unless he likes rigorous and regular beatings himself. Some people might say that they don’t think they or their loved one’s would be adversely in the slightest if everyone went about walking around naked. Others might believe that they would be stressed out (or overstimulated) in such a world. However, the above approach has already gotten us to the fringe of questionable activity. Yes, some people might be traumatized if their neighbors walked around in the nude. But I suspect if everybody did it (as per the question) it would become not weird (definitely not harmful) in short order. There are those people who are so fragile that they can’t sleep knowing that a couple engaging in intercourse in privacy of a room three doors down are probably not using a missionary-approved posture. Said people need the kind of wisdom I’m talking about more than any because part of it is accepting that there may be more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in their philosophy. Now that we know how to kill stray asteroids, if humanity ever dies out it will be at the hands of people who can’t bear anyone living by rules not those that they took for themselves.


At any rate, I think there are two reasons why the above approach is difficult for homo religiosis (religious human.) First, there are many activities that homo religiosis wants to see universally abolished because their religion considers forbidden, but which don’t adversely impact others. (e.g. Jains are pretty easy-come-easy-go, but imagine you were told you’d have to forgo onions because of that religion’s moral belief that no food should come from a plant that’s killed by harvesting. [FYI: Let me laugh now at the religious people who say “but there’s nothing crazy like that in my religion?” That just means you are so untraveled and uneducated that you can’t fathom how completely wacky some of your “moral” beliefs / practices are. e.g. How about eating salmon on Fridays as a sacrifice in lieu of eating a hamburger? That’s just nutty on all sorts of levels.])


Second, many believers really do believe that they have a special place in god’s heart and, therefore, aren’t subject to the same limitations as those poor, god unloved people. The idea that said person shouldn’t commit rape because they wouldn’t like it if someone else raped them or their sister or their mother is non-sense, because their god would never let someone else get away with shit like that with them. (Yes, there are people who’ve lived sheltered enough lives to believe that god punishes others but–at most–“tries” them.)


Most of us must accept that when it comes to being a person, we are the same as all the other people. While one may be stronger, faster, smarter, or in some dimension more talented than others, this doesn’t endow one with a different set of rights and responsibilities. On a genetic level there are no chosen people.


Earlier I mentioned that the “if everyone else did it” standard might leave one on the horns of a dilemma as to how to behave or what decision to make. Here’s where we’ve got to use our brains because the hard and fast rules go out the window. Evolution has programmed us with some guidelines that were beneficial given the constraints of the world our ancestors lived in. However, this programming of pleasure and pain may or may not be great advice given the ways in which humans have changed our own world.


Let me give some examples. Our nervous system suggests we eat foods that are sweet and fatty. We crave chocolate and bacon, and pleasure centers in the brain light up when we consume these foods. In our hunter / gatherer existence, this was excellent guidance because a.) these foods were relatively rare, b.) these foods had dense caloric content, c.) sweet foods are less likely to be poison, and d.) we worked our asses off in physical labor (i.e. high caloric demands.) However, today these high caloric foods are mass-produced, we require almost no caloric expenditure to obtain them (or to do most anything else in our cubicle-dwelling work lives), and in some cases people are literally (I don’t use “literally” lightly) killing themselves with such foods.  So part of the wisdom I’m talking about is developing the capacity to exercise conscious control over decisions about whether to eat such foods, how much of such foods to consume, and what activities to do to counter act the flood of empty calories. Our biology is a harsh mistress, and it can require intense efforts to keep such impulses under control.


We are also programmed with love, a trait which has served us well over all. I know some of you are cringing about the idea of “evolutionarily programmed love”–so unromantic. It’s simple. Those who could build connections with others disproportionately survived to pass their genes on. This further fed into our species’ rise because, while we think of ourselves as the planet’s dominant species, we produce the most vulnerable 1 year olds (or 8 year olds for that matter) of any species on the planet. A human three-year-old is good for two things–learning and food. It takes a lot of love to make sure its the former and not the latter. An extremely intense experience of love is essential to our species’ ability to not just wander off and let our pain-in-the-ass children get eaten. This gives us plenty of time to teach kids more than just how to elude a saber-tooth tiger. We have time to teach kids language, social niceties, and trigonometry.


We can, therefore, use our gigantic brains to noodle out whether a given action is best for us,  in addition to whether it does no harm to those around us. The complexity of our brains allows us to rewrite our rule book in unprecedented ways. Some of the religious “morality” that seems vacuous (e.g. don’t eat shellfish, but feel free to own as many people as you can afford) probably had a logic in that time (e.g. people were getting sick from eating shellfish because they didn’t yet know how to prepare it.) The problem is that one has to be ready to jettison obsolete advice, and that’s hard to do once it’s entrenched as dogma. This is where being Homo sapiens, the thinking human, comes into play.



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