Sunday, July 20, 2008

Wisdom vs. Knowledge vs. Information

Many people can said that we are in an "information age." We now have access to more facts than we ever have had in the past. Yet we are surrounded by spectacularly unwise people. This is because information is nothing until it is used. It is like potential energy; a piece of firewood. Raw facts need to be first known, and then applied, in order to be useful - this is wisdom.

Let's start with some definitions:

Wisdom is the "quality of being wise; knowledge, and the capacity to make due use of it; knowledge of the best ends and the best means; discernment and judgment; discretion; sagacity; skill; dexterity."

Knowledge can be defined as the "act or state of knowing; clear perception of fact, truth, or duty; certain apprehension; familiar cognizance; cognition."

simply is "any fact or set of facts, knowledge, news, or advice."

Paul Graham has written a very interesting essay on the differences between wisdom and intelligence. There is a good discussion of his argument over at the Volokh Conspiracy blog. Essentially, Graham argues that "a wise person knows what to do in most situations, while a smart person knows what to do in situations where few others could." He explains:
"Wise" and "smart" are both ways of saying someone knows what to do. The difference is that "wise" means one has a high average outcome across all situations, and "smart" means one does spectacularly well in a few. . . . As knowledge gets more specialized . . . intelligence and wisdom drift apart, [and] we may have to decide which we prefer. We may not be able to optimize for both simultaneously.
I would distinguish his argument somewhat, since I believe information and knowledge are prerequisites to wisdom, while intelligence is something qualitatively different. Intelligence, in my opinion, is best defined as the "capacity to know or understand; readiness of comprehension; the intellect, as a gift or an endowment." In other words, intelligence is an ability, and it is nothing until it is exercised. Many, if not most of us, know very intelligent people who make very bad decisions. Wisdom, on the other hand, is defined by its application - it is kinetic - since it is the application of known information. Intelligence goes hand-in-hand with this process, as intelligence is a measure of capacity to know or understand. Wisdom is the process.

Information is great. Knowing lots of information can be helpful. But we need wisdom to sort it all out. Some level of intelligence is necessary but not sufficient in order to be wise. And, the Information Age, with its ease of access to information, makes it too easy to set aside knowledge, as we don't need to remember things anymore, we can just look them up any time on our Blackberrys or iPhones. Let's just be intelligent about it, and not forget about wisdom.


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