This post is an outgrowth of the conversation between A. Carrozza and I in the comments of my opening post, The Plight of the Lonely Genius. The question is, why can’t wisdom be taught?

At this point in the dialogue, we’ve failed to disagree on any major points, but I wanted to give the conversation a chance to develop into something interesting, so I’m making a post.

Wisdom: The ability, developed through experience, insight and reflection, to discern truth and exercise good judgment. (Ironically enough, a definition from Wikipedia, which was the most appropriate for the circumstance).

The definition is a useful starting point, but does not capture the breadth of the actual concept. Maybe this is a semantic debate in disguise. We’ll see.

Carrozza opens:

Human beings are not the logical, open-minded rationalists that they pretend to be. There’s an invisible dimension to human cognition that runs parallel to logical thought. For lack of a better term, let’s call it “belief” or “non-rational conditioning.”

To summarize the post, Carrozza sees wisdom in the context of a dichotomy between itself and mainstream beliefs. Humans delude themselves with the notion that we are primarily rational and logical, when in fact we are governed by superstition that is evolutionarily advantageous.

He provides the following example of wisdom, which he lifts from Zen philosophy:

  1. All things are interconnected and interdependent, therefore nothing exists independently from anything else.
  2. The universe is in a constant state of flux, and nothing exists in the same form for more than an instant at a time.
  3. Thoughts and the words that define them are static, grossly overly-simplistic, cognitive “maps” of an infinite, multi-dimensional, dynamic reality. They have utility in the same way that a street map has utility

He asks why, given these simple, largely self-evident principles, does Zen take a lifetime to master? His answer: “…all of these principles run counter to our culturally-defined and biologically-hardwired cognitive programming. Wisdom has to swim ‘upstream.'”

The reason, he supposes, if that the mind must be stripped of its assumptions and biases, and that this is the path to “wisdom.” Having described the rigors of Zen practice, he goes on:

My sense is that, most likely, these traditional practices serve to bend, fold, stretch and— hopefully —“crack open” the unconscious (innate and culturally conditioned) premises and assumptions that define and rule a zen novice’s life and and thought processes.


My response:

I call that conditioning the “animal brain” — it’s very much at odds with enlightened thought, but I don’t see the dichotomy as being so adversarial.

My position is that the animal brain is programmed by evolution, or “the frenzied, fearful belief in some eternal enemy,” and that human behavior on the whole tends to be governed by this animal within. My position is that “wisdom” isn’t so much running against the mainstream per se, as it is conquering the animal and bringing its passions and focus in line with the higher values of interconnection and the like.

In summation: “…I don’t think it’s like two sides of a coin, as much as it is to two steps in a process.”


Carrozza splits into two topics here, one about mysticism, and one continuing this line of discussion. I’ll focus on the latter, and split the other into a separate post.

He opens by drawing a distinction between the knowledge of wisdom, and the thought process that allows it to be useful, likening it to a farmer using seeds (knowledge) but needing good soil, or in the opposite case water being poured onto a duck’s back.

He expounds on this distinction, then brings up a related issue: most of the information disseminated to us is wrong. He uses this point to argue that direct experience is necessary for deep, reliable knowledge.


My response, is this:

I see what you mean about wisdom being able to be taught both in the Zen sense, and the sense of subject mastery altering one’s thought process, but I think that is a trick of semantics.

Maybe it’s by definition that the two are not the same. If we allow that “wisdom” related to a topic can be acquired by traditional study of the topic, then we’ve failed to discern between wisdom and expertise. The term becomes meaningless if wisdom is both the soil and the seed. There is clearly a correlation, but I think it’s worth separating the ideas in our mind.

Expertise does create changes in thought process. I remember clearly when I was very young, first learning to program — the moment it clicked was when I had to create a conditional statement with multiple clauses, for some reason the act of differentiating between and combining “AND” and “OR” in my mind provided me with clarity and insight that would inform my entire thought process.

Now, many years later, I occasionally dream in code, which is a sensation that a person who hasn’t mastered a subject will probably not know. I have mastered several subjects, and in each case I have been hit with that same sort of clarity. Thinking in terms of movement and equations, thinking in terms of sounds and vibrations.

These epiphanies force one to realize that our mentally abstracted view of the world is both profoundly limited, and entirely arbitrary. Were we born with a slightly different chemical makeup, we would have monumentally altered views on spatial relationships, color, tone– the list goes on.

So, I find that the act of using knowledge to break into new ways of thinking is a wizening experience, but the knowledge one gains in the subject matter isn’t inherently enlightening.

I think that’s where the seed and soil connect: the process of expanding outward into mental territory one hasn’t traveled before is precisely the process of becoming wise. One fuel for that expansion is subject matter knowledge. I would argue that the more dominant fuel is experience.

…Which brings us to the next point, which is that learned knowledge alone is not sufficient to produce wisdom, as you were saying with the young, misinformed genius. This is the realm of the mystic: to experience, as directly as one may, the fabric of the world surrounding him. To allow the universe to ply his mind, to let it bend his perception until he sees the back of his own head, and realizes that perception has nothing to do with the raw material of reality, and everything to do with the internal state of he that perceives it.

What a marvelous duality: an idea so radical as not to be believed or even comprehended by the anyman, yet so mundane and true that it is one of the most celebrated and ancient beliefs that we as humans still carry to this day, dating back to at least the dawn of history.

Unless a third person jumps in here to disagree, I can’t see this line of discourse going that much further, because I think that Carrozza and I are both of the mind that wisdom, by definition, is a measure of how mystically enlightened one is. Please, correct me if I’m wrong.

In either case, I’ll be posting the discussion about mysticism in its own post, so stay tuned for that.

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