August 4, 2023
Thanks to Dave Seng, HMU alumnus, for today’s post.
In our last two posts we examined the nature of difficult questions—questions which cannot be reduced to utility or calculation and the rationality of humans contrasted with the functionality of AI. In this post I want to explore the question of wisdom. I will further develop why the hard irreducible questions might be a source of wisdom and then I want to explore how information is structured for human understanding which might lead to wisdom. Using this foundation, we can get a better understanding of wisdom and whether AI will achieve it. Both Aeschylus and Euripides address the enduring human quest for wisdom. Many of the great authors believe that wisdom is the highest human and intellectual good. Although not one from one of the plays that we read in the recent HMU series, the final words from the Chorus in Antigone tell us that “our happiness depends on wisdom.” Aristotle reminds us that, “the activity of philosophic wisdom is admittedly the pleasantest of virtuous activities”. Wisdom is seen by many as a significant human aspiration and one which, although difficult to arrive at, is considered the highest human good.
First, we will look at how information is ordered to wisdom. The idea that information is ordered hierarchically to wisdom is a theme in intellectual history. In the Great Conversation, Mortimer Adler writes, “The goods of the mind are information, knowledge, understanding and wisdom. We seek these goods not just in order to live, but in order to live well. Possessing them lifts us above the plane of animal existence, for these goods enhance our existence as human beings, as well as providing enjoyment and pleasure.” Long before Adler, Thomas Aquinas suggested that there was a hierarchy to knowledge and understanding, “Now man has different kinds of knowledge, according to the different things known. He has understanding as regards the knowledge of principles; he has science as regards to conclusions; he has wisdom, according as he knows the highest cause; he has counsel or prudence, according as he knows what is to be done.” What I think is interesting in Aquinas’s and Dr. Adler’s insights is how information, knowledge, and understanding directs one to wisdom.
Structuring information and knowledge in this way has become known as the knowledge pyramid. This is a hierarchical way of looking at the order of knowledge with information at the base and wisdom at the pinnacle. Linearly it would look like this: information → knowledge → understanding → wisdom. However, many information professionals have added data to the hierarchy and use this model: data → information → knowledge → understanding → wisdom. For this post, we’ll use the latter model and compare it with human rationality and AI functionality.
When it comes to humans data involves sensory input. Data comes to us little by little and arises from reality (or being) itself. In this most foundational aspect, data does not have meaning or significance. It must be processed and organized in the mind to become meaningful. In computer terms, data is that which is stored digitally as bits. A bit (binary digit) is the smallest unit of data and is represented as a binary value of zero or one (at the machine level a small voltage is recorded as “one”). By itself a bit has no meaning or significance. One bit must be combined with many other bits and processed into meaningful information, just as letters must be combined into words and sentences to provide information for the reader. This is why computer engineers refer to bits in terms of disk space, not information. The proper arrangement of data provides information.
Information reflects reality. Reality has its own intractable way of being and presents itself in a relational order. Part of understanding this aspect of reality is that things exist by way of relationship to one another. Information is data that has been given meaning by way of relational connection. A relational database, for example, makes information from the data stored within it. When letters are combined through relational ordering into words and sentences, a reader discerns information by processing the given data. At least two things need to be present to get information. Data must be structured relationally and there must be an intuitive relationship between the ordered data and the individual. These aspects create meaning from the data. Information may not always be useful, true, or important, however. Today, there is a lot of useless information and misinformation generated. For information to be genuinely meaningful it must be combined with knowledge and understanding.
Knowledge is the appropriate collection of information, such that its intent or purpose is to be useful. Human cognition is complex when it comes to knowledge and understanding. Humans rely on intuition, memory, abstraction, and the nonrational elements of cognition when organizing the facts (information) they receive. When data has been organized into information and information is ordered into something meaningful there is knowledge. Here, knowledge can be seen as any collection of information such as the fields of biology, history, philosophy, or mathematics. This is what scholars mean when they refer to a “body of knowledge.”
Knowledge, too, requires appropriate relationships between things. We take data and facts and determine their value and importance based on their relationship with other things. We can discern what something is, what attributes it has, and how it stands with other things to create knowledge. It is true that AI can be a source of information and it can organize the information into a body of knowledge. But reading or viewing information from a container is not the only way humans develop knowledge. At least for now, AI seems to lack the kinds of direct and indirect knowledge humans have of the world. I can read about the Eiffel tower and know about it indirectly or I can fly to Paris and experience it directly. Subject area experts intuitively combine direct and indirect knowledge with understanding when drawing conclusions in their field.
Understanding relies on facts and knowledge. Information gives us the facts and knowledge provides the relational ordering of reality. Put another way, information tells us what something is or that something is. Knowledge helps us with the “who,” “how,” and “when” questions of something. Understanding helps with the “why” questions. Understanding is cognitive and analytical. It is the process by which you and I can take knowledge and synthesize new knowledge from the previously held knowledge and facts. The difference between understanding and knowledge is the difference between learning and memorizing. People who have understanding can undertake useful actions because they can synthesize new knowledge, or in some cases, at least new information, from what is previously known (and understood). That is, understanding can build upon currently held information and knowledge. In other words, humans can synthesize new knowledge from previously stored information and knowledge. Ultimately, understanding allows us to properly order our intellectual, moral, and practical lives correctly and with wisdom.
Wisdom is the highest good of the mind and that which we need to live well. Wisdom relies on knowledge and understanding but also on distinctly human aspects of cognition and consciousness. It is founded on the previous four levels but includes the most foundational nonrational, intuitive, and artistic levels of consciousness. Wisdom combines direct and indirect knowledge. Wisdom has been defined in several ways. Aristotle, in his Metaphysics believed wisdom comes from understanding the first principles of reality. This is a helpful understanding of wisdom because every field of human inquiry relies on foundational starting points. I would suggest that wisdom is the virtue of using our knowledge and understanding well. Wisdom is a lifelong pursuit. It requires philosophic questioning of the most perennial and enduring questions. All questions whether metaphysical, the fundamental nature of reality, or ethical relate to life and the complex character of human existence. The enduring questions that relate to being and becoming, life and death, how to discover right from wrong, or what kind of thing justice is and how it ought to be distributed, are significantly human questions which require philosophic investigation. Philosophy is thinking rationally and carefully about the most important questions of life. One can pose philosophic questions to an AI chatbot but wisdom is achieved from the intuitive conscious deliberations of the human. It is hard to consider an AI which lacks human insight, genuine self-awareness, consciousness, intuition, or the ability to think rationally and critically about one’s character, actions, and motives to be wise. Intuition and the nonrational are the foundation of the human recognition of love, beauty, and the moral standards we accept.
Philosophic questions, by nature, are easy to ask but difficult to answer. The pursuit of these ultimate questions, however, is important for two reasons. The first is that the pursuit of these questions, even if the answers may not be easily resolvable, can lead to wisdom. In his book, In Pursuit of Wisdom, philosopher Abraham Kaplan explains, “Whatever else wisdom may be, it is in some sense an understanding of life. It is not a purely cerebral attainment; wisdom is as much a matter of what we do and feel as it is of how we think. But thought is central to it or, at any rate, to that species of wisdom which philosophy pursues.” The second reason is that right investigation of enduring questions can lead to a well-lived life.
At his trial in Athens, Socrates explained why he is so passionately committed to seeking the truth. He said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates understood that it is our rationality (including nonrationality, intuitive, and lived experience) that makes humans unique and offers a way to a good life. If we use our rationality well, we will have a fulfilled, happy, and meaningful life. We all know what happens to someone who has not used their rationality very well. Cephalopods can have a wonderful life without using rationality. It is one’s ability to reason that defines what it means to be human and pursue that which is good, true, and beautiful.
Having knowledge and understanding in and of themselves does not make one wise. Wisdom is an extrapolative, non-deterministic, non-probabilistic, and non-mathematical process. It calls upon all the previous levels of consciousness, and specifically upon special types of human knowing (moral, ethical codes, etc.). It beckons to give us understanding about which there has previously been no understanding, and in doing so, goes far beyond understanding itself. It is the essence of philosophic probing and requires significant analysis and investigation. Hard decisions require philosophic investigation into values, consequences and priorities based on what we know about the nature of the world and right and wrong. An AI can provide knowledge, various theories, and factual information regarding these kinds of questions. But only a human with lived experience, nonrational, and other consciousness abilities can come to wisdom regarding the ultimate questions mankind wrestles with. An AI can provide many benefits, but it will bring new challenges to society as well. Facing these challenges will require human wisdom.
 Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotphanes, 2nd ed., vol. 4, Great Books of The Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1996), 174.
 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 2nd ed., vol. 8, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1996), 433–34.
 Mortimer Adler, ed., The Great Conversation: A Reader’s Guide to Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1994), 24.
 Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, trans. Father Laurence Shapcote of the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, vol. 17, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1996) 1a, q. 14, a. 1
 What has become known as the knowledge pyramid is generally rejected by anti-foundationalists and post-structuralists due to its foundationalism. Foundationalism, however, cannot be easily erased. Empiricism, induction, and our senses are the only connection humans have to reality. One’s knowledge of reality must have some ultimate starting point. Foundationalism is not entirely rejected in other fields either. In education, for example, scaffolding and activating prior knowledge is a foundational practice and is still considered valid.
 Aristotle, Metaphysics, vol. 7, Great Books of The Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1996), 500. For Aristotle, a principle is that from which something else flows. For example, the first principles of reality are the logical principles of noncontradiction, identity, and excluded middle and others such as the principle of being (something exists) and causality. Part of philosophical wisdom for Aristotle, is knowing which principle to apply to a particle order of reality.
 Abraham Kaplan, In Pursuit of Wisdom: The Scope of Philosophy (Beverly Hills: Glencoe Press, 1977), 16.
 Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, ed. Mortimer Adler and et al, vol. 6, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1990), 210.
Adler, Mortimer, ed. The Great Conversation: A Reader’s Guide to Great Books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1994.
Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotphanes. 2nd ed. Vol. 4. Great Books of The Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1996.
Aristotle. Metaphysics. Vol. 7. Great Books of The Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1996.
———. Nicomachean Ethics. 2nd ed. Vol. 8. Great Books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1996.
Kaplan, Abraham. In Pursuit of Wisdom: The Scope of Philosophy. Beverly Hills: Glencoe Press, 1977.
Plato. The Dialogues of Plato. Edited by Mortimer Adler and et al. Vol. 6. Great Books of the Western World. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1990.
Resources for digging deeper.
Barret, William. The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization
Borgmann, Albert. Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millenium
——— Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life
Madden, James. Artificial Intelligence and Giving a Damn About It
Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other
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