Knowledge, Wisdom, and Evolution (or: how my mind works)
Today I want to take you on a short trip.
Ready for a free ride inside my mind?
We’re about to leave, so buckle up!
Point of departure
I woke up thinking about the difference between knowledge and wisdom. It all boiled down to a simple thought: knowledge is impetuous, wisdom is humble.
I was just reiterating what I’ve long known first-hand, which was already well-known: think of Socrates or the more recent Dunning-Kruger effect.
As Socrates had it, “I know that I know nothing” – which should not be taken literally (words rarely do). But you know, when a wise man points at the moon…
And just to reiterate some more, here’s a nice quote from Bertrand Russell:
The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
Paradoxically enough: the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. But here’s a counter-paradox: the more you learn, the more you get to know.
That’s why you can reach interesting new insights, even when your starting point feels quite obvious – and this is exactly what happened to me today.
Back to my morning thoughts: together with Socrates and Dunning-Kruger, another quote I like immediately came to mind.
According to the book Touching the Invisible: Exploring the Way of Shiatsu, in Eastern Asia there’s a saying that goes like this:
The teacher makes things more complicated. The master simplifies.
I find it brilliant, and it links back with many interesting concepts that I’ll save for another time (or, you can check out a few more quotes and sources).
And here’s where it hit me: masters transcend difficulty.
Experts often thrive with complexity, so they tend to grow rather proud of it. And yet, the mark of a true master is to make hard things look insanely easy.
This is where I experienced a sudden flow of revelations, in a rapid series of thoughts. Two new players took the field: awareness and ignorance.
I drew a quick parallel with the spiritual realm, of which I seldom speak because the true Dao can’t be told and all that jazz – but also because I know nothing.
Anyhow, here’s the thought: transcendence requires awareness, which is preceded by ignorance. At that point, I only had to connect the dots.
I shifted again to my previous context, and I noticed that this pattern holds: I was only considering two variables, while there really were three all along.
Ignorance is naive, knowledge is impetuous, wisdom is humble. It circles back.
First you know nothing, then you think you know, finally the universe humbles you with its complexity. But this newfound humbleness is where wisdom begins.
Ignorance is a kid, knowledge is a teenager, wisdom is an elder. The circle of life.
(As another instance of “the more you learn, the easier it gets to know more”, this also connects to Eric Berne’s Parent-Adult-Child psychological model.)
Mind a last metaphor? Evolution.
At first, you are but a cute Bulbasaur. When you sprout into an Ivysaur, you look down on the poor tiny plant bulbs. But wait until you meet a gigantig Venusaur.
Ignorance may evolve into Knowledge, but its final form is Wisdom.
Now I know why Pokémon three-stage evolutions feel so satisfying!
- It’s ok to start out as a clueless Horsea who only makes bubbles.
- Eventually, you’ll become a Seadra – and you’re kind of good already.
- But why stop there, when you could still evolve into a literal sea dragon?
Thankfully, Game Freak also realized this – and fixed it in Gen 2 with Kingdra.
So yeah, this all started in my bed. I just wanted to sleep a bit more. But then I thought about knowledge, Socrates, transcendence… and finally Pokémons!
(Apparently, at least once a month my mind is contractually required to ponder over such matters in the early morning. For reference, see my post outgrowing.)
To me personally, the moral of the story is: your mind might not let you sleep at times, but it’s still a wonderful tool which deserves a lot of love.
And since we’ve come this far, I want to sum it all up with a quote of my own:
Only one thing is more dangerous than ignorance: the illusion of knowledge.
(Trivia: three years ago I was thinking about cybersecurity, especially about “solutions” that can easily lull you into a false sense of security.
Given my innate tendency to generalize and abstract, I shaped that thought into the form you’ve just read and saved it in a plaintext file – dated 21 July 2020.
I never had a chance to use it until just recently: earlier this month I gave a talk about online privacy, so this aphorism circled back again into the cyber world!)