What Does Wisdom Look Like?

Here’s a reasonable summary:

Wisdom is not just one type of knowledge, but diverse. What a wise person needs to know and understand constitutes a varied list: the most important goals and values of life – the ultimate goal, if there is one; what means will reach these goals without too great a cost; what kinds of dangers threaten the achieving of these goals; how to recognize and avoid or minimize these dangers; what different types of human beings are like in their actions and motives (as this presents dangers or opportunities); what is not possible or feasible to achieve (or avoid); how to tell what is appropriate when; knowing when certain goals are sufficiently achieved; what limitations are unavoidable and how to accept them; how to improve oneself and one’s relationships with others or society; knowing what the true and unapparent value of various things is; when to take a long-term view; knowing the variety and obduracy of facts, institutions, and human nature; understanding what one’s real motives are; how to cope and deal with the major tragedies and dilemmas of life, and with the major good things too.

– Robert Nozick, The Examined Life.

Wisdom involves knowledge of a lot of stuff. To start getting that knowledge, you need to know how to not be misled by experts, and how to not mislead yourself and others. And then you need to actually study the knoweldge of experts and test it out for yourself, which is all part of the path to becoming an expert, yourself.

How to Not Be Misled

At a minimum, learn how to recognize and avoid the informal fallacies. An informal fallacy is a well-known bad way to reason:

  1. Ad Hominem
  2. Appeal to Ignorance
  3. Begging the Question
  4. Confusion of Necessary with a Sufficient Condition
  5. Equivocation
  6. False Dilemma
  7. Faulty Analogy
  8. Inconsistency
  9. Irrelevant Authority
  10. Is Ought
  11. Ought Is
  12. Questionable Cause
  13. Red Herring
  14. Slippery Slope
  15. Straw Person
  16. Two Wrongs
  17. Unwarranted Generalization

The Most Important Things in Life

Now move on to cultivating knowledge of the most important goals and values in life. In psychology these goals are typically called needs. Needs are conditions necessary for invidual and group survival and perpetuation. To fulfill your needs and other people’s needs, you need practical knowelege (a.k.a. knowledge of how to make stuff happen, a.k.a “know-how”). Let’s get know-how for the following:

  1. How to get adequate quantities of nutritious food and clean water (from farm to table and from water collection to your glass)
  2. How to obtain secure housing (resilient, free of toxins like mold and air pollution, free of criminal threats)
  3. How to configure a non-hazardous work environment (one that doesn’t reduce your life expectancy or mental health)
  4. How to sustainably reduce environmental hazards (how to not undermine your needs through your consumption)
  5. How to make adequate health care available to yourself and others (knowledge of health care policy and treatment outcomes)
  6. How to raise healthy kids (kids grow up to be leaders and neighbors – you want them to be smart and well-adjusted)
  7. How to have healthy relationships (intimacies, kinships, friendships, all the ships)
  8. How to reduce interpersonal abuse (how to identify abuse, de-escalate violence and defend against violence)
  9. How not to go broke (asset diversification, budgeting, hustle, counter-consumerism)
  10. How to engage in safe and effective sexy time and safe child-bearing
  11. How to relate to people of other communities abroad and locally (aka cultural fluency) so that you can treat people with dignity
  12. How to modify your own behavior so that you’re exercising your know-how (you aren’t wise if you’re all talk and no action)
  13. How to maintain your own mental health and protect those who don’t have it (wise people are effectively compassionate with themselves and others)

So that’s a lot of know-how to work on. But it’s important, by definition. Make time for it. And don’t just think about these issues from the perspective of individual choice. Consider governmental and workplace policy as well. (For more rigorous coverage of needs theory, checkout the book A Theory of Human Need by Len Doyal and lan Gough.)

Bonus: Learn How to Read Scientific Papers and Start Reading Them

To get know-how, you’re going to have to read and execute, check your results, rinse and repeat. You want to leverage the highest-quality information to accelerate your proficiency. The best way to get high-quality information (when it’s available) is to go to scientific experts, who have summarized and cited a large body of primary experimental literature (and observational studies) in a minimally-biased way. But how do you know when an expert is being honest in their treament of the literature? One option is to see how other experts have received their work. Another option is to check for yourself. Learn how how to read scientific reports, so you can go through the references section of a book/article/blog-post and read the references. If you’re reading history or a piece of investigative journalism, there will be references you can check there too. Do it. For the sake of all humanity. Start here: How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists.