Wisdom is the power that enables us to use knowledge for the benefit of ourselves and others – Thomas J. Watson
A key failure in current political discourse is that many, if not most, people confuse knowledge and wisdom. The difference between knowledge and wisdom is quite simple. Scientific and technical knowledge tell us about the physical universe and how to manipulate it. Wisdom tells us how to use the knowledge to lead the good life.
That is, knowledge tells us how to build the atom bomb, wisdom tells us whether we should. Knowledge tells us how to extend our lifespans, wisdom tells us whether we should. Although the difference between knowledge and wisdom is simple and fundamental to our lives, it is not widely understood.
In America, it is confused by an educational system that teaches moral relativism and political correctness, while making a desperate attempt to not teach religion. The result translates into an attempt to not convey any wisdom at all, for religion may be defined as a formal system of wisdom. Yet American schools try to suppress religion and present that any set of values is equally as valid as any other set. They demean some of the wisest people in history for being white and male and make a deliberate attempt to belittle their teachings Knowledge, however, is esteemed and rewarded. The result is a generation that equates knowledge with wisdom.
This confusion causes people to look to scientists to answer moral questions, which is at least as bad as looking to religious leaders to answer scientific questions. For example, abortion is one of the most hotly debated topics in our society. Simply by the use of the labels fetus and baby, our society is heavily split. At present, we either abort a quarter of all fetuses or murder one out of every four babies. If the first label is correct, maybe it’s not such a bad thing. If the second label is correct, we live in one of the darkest and most cruel societies in the history of mankind. Which is it?
Many people look to scientists to answer the question. Yet scientists can’t provide the answer, only wisdom can. Scientists can make objective observations such as when the heart starts beating, when the brain waves start, when the fetus is possibly or probably viable outside the mother’s womb, and when the fetus is possibly or probably threatening to the mother’s life. All of these scientific measurements can be determined with some amount of objectivity. All of these measurements are used by people on both sides of the debate. Yet none of these scientific observations answer the question if abortion is right. No scientific measurement ever will.
Another group in our society looks to religion for answers to scientific questions. Take for instance the fundamentalist Christian sects who take everything in the Bible as scientific fact because they know the Bible to be True. Thus, the theory of evolution must be wrong. The Earth must be only a few thousand years old. And so on. If the Bible is not scientifically correct, can it be True? Again, we have confusion between truth in the realm of knowledge and Truth in the realm of wisdom. When a parent explains a basic Truth to a child using a simplified explanation, does this make it less true? If Jesus explained a truth with a parable, was it necessary for the parable to actually have happened for the parable to contain Truth? If God gave a simplified explanation to his children because they were not ready to understand quantum physics and DNA, does that make the Bible false? Especially since the lessons being taught were those of wisdom and not of knowledge.
If God had been interested in imparting knowledge, wouldn’t Moses have come down the mountain with the laws of motion and thermodynamics? Instead, he came down with the Ten Commandments, moral rules meant to impart wisdom on how people should live their lives.
Perhaps the worst effect of the confusion of knowledge and wisdom is that people are losing faith in the institutions of wisdom, the churches. Because of the advancement of knowledge, people feel that churches are outmoded. Yet wisdom is timeless. Are the Ten Commandments any less valid today than they were thousands of years ago? No, they are the basic minimum set of rules that make a civilization viable. Knowledge may make killing more efficient, but no amount of knowledge will make murder right. To have a legitimate political debate, people must understand the difference between knowledge and wisdom. In knowledge, there are right and wrong answers about specific facts, but there is no concept of moral right and wrong, good and evil. For that, we need wisdom. For we live in a time of great knowledge and precious little wisdom.