Wisdom and the Search for Truth


  Wisdom and the Search for Truth

Wisdom that is not guided by the search for truth can turn into fantasy.

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer

There are many ways to gain a different perspective on life. However, the motivation behind following these types of paths is no different than that which drives someone to seek wisdom and knowledge. We may be motivated by different reasons, but ultimately we all wish to find meaning in our lives - or at least understand life's mysteries and contradictions better. Seeking wisdom can be compared with digging for gold, for it always takes a combination of knowledge, skills and inspiration to find something that others may have overlooked. For those who wish to gain a deeper understanding of life and the world in general there are only two methods: 1) gather as much information as possible; 2) share this knowledge with others.

In this article I will discuss one way that we can gain wisdom - consider the message that Robert Pirsig wrote to his son in the novel "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". Although the main protagonist (Pirsig's alter-ego) leaves home at 16 years old to pursue his vision, he realizes that he must get back home before he is too old. Wise men indeed know when to embrace the world and when to return to what is familiar. He returns home and discovers that he has a son - Robert Pirsig. The novel begins:

I can't remember the point when the word "quality" began to carry a special meaning for me, but it was a good long time ago…It was in connection with some engineering project I was involved in, or maybe just thinking about…At any rate, I had identified quality with success in my work – with getting things done…
I am an engineer by profession and have spent most of my life successfully designing electronic equipment. It is not easy these days and maybe it never was, but I have always made a good living at it.
Success – if quality is defined as "success" – depends on freedom, independence, and the confidence to take risks and try new things. These are very much a part of life at the edge where I want to live…The edge is where I learned about quality…At the edge you see all kinds of things you never knew were there. Most of these things are merely interesting curiosities but some will catch your eye because they are so beautiful or strange or uncanny…The mystery of these things lures you farther out onto the edge. You want to learn more about them and see how they work. Then one day you're hurrying along the familiar path hoping for something interesting and you find that path has shifted out from under your feet. You have no choice but to go back down the way you came, but it's a different place when you get there, perhaps with an entirely different name on the signpost – or maybe not…- Robert Pirsig, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"
The notion that acquiring wisdom means returning home is often expressed by philosophers and great thinkers throughout history. For instance:
Man can discover means of turning off his reason, but nothing can turn it on again; he must then live content with his lot. For the beginnings of all our actions are narrowed down to some basic principle which is implanted in us by nature, whether we accept it or not. Now reason is curbed at the start and does not grow with us from our earliest years; therefore, unless it be present and operating at the start, no subsequent training can reach or develop those capacities that reason alone can give. — Seneca
Philosophy's job consists in eliciting from man an awareness of what he is and what he is doing. Its first job is to get him to recognize his own existence. — Ayn Rand
The way you discover meaning in life is to become a seeker of meaning. - A Course in Miracles
The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that you don't know. - Socrates
Intuition and wisdom come from the same place within each of us. We must look inside ourselves and not expect to find what we are searching for outside our minds. Philosophy can be likened to a lab where scientists experiment with chemicals, but real knowledge comes from an individual's efforts at synthesis, when they draw together disparate thoughts into one project or idea; a single philosophy. Einstein put it in this way:
Through thought we order the chaos of our experience. Thought is the faculty by means of which we grasp the meaning of things; but not all things have meaning. - Erwin Schrödinger
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
There is no universally accepted definition of what quality is. At the most superficial level, we might say that it is a subjective concept. We may consider something to be of high quality if it is aesthetically pleasing to us at that moment in time. However, it is more commonly understood as an expression of one's knowledge and skill, and therefore something that can be learned. For example:
The Renaissance scientist Galileo Galilei was the first person to make systematic use of data quality as a variable. He did this by developing a very detailed method of controlled experimentation and observation in which he tested his own hypotheses. But he also developed a systematic way of recording and analyzing his data. He was very careful about statistics as well as the procedures he used to test his ideas. - J.L.Gibbons, "The Power of Measurement"
There are many ways in which we can learn about quality. For many years I have been interested in the sciences of complexity theory, chaos theory and fractals; more recently I have become interested in the world of chaos systems - which is a type of system whose behavior becomes unpredictable after a certain length or time delay has elapsed (e.g. a week). This is very different from the common perception of time, where time seems to flow forward, but the longer I follow it, the more it seems to stand still. Chaos theory teaches us that things are often much more complicated than they seem at first glance. For instance:
The frequency distribution function for a population of chaotic systems exhibits an "alive-dead" shape whose structure is determined by certain parameters called Lyapunov exponents. - J.L.Krauss and S.D.Pomerance, "Chaos"
We have been taught that we live in a linear world where events happen on a time line with cause and effect.

Conclusion: Quality is a matter of personal choice, but there are a few things that I have learned to look for…These include:
1. Naturalness – "being natural", as opposed to artificial
2. Simplicity – the idea of simplicity has been around since the time of the Greeks and was first espoused by Plato, who believed that all things in nature were made up of four basic elements - earth, air, fire and water. He thought that these four elements were in everything because they had been formed in the Earth from which everything else came. He believed that we need only understand these four elements to understand everything else.

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