Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience


Is there such a thing as wisdom — a thing, stuff, an abstract entity — or are there only wise individuals and wise actions and attitudes, these latter not exclusively the possession of the individuals in question given that even fools can sometimes be wise?

This question is a significant one, because it bears on the enterprise of “wisdom studies,” a parallel endeavour to the “happiness studies” now big in the neuropsychologically-informed social sciences. (And there too the question has to be: is there such a thing as happiness, or only happy individuals and happy times and experiences, the latter not the exclusive property of the individuals in question, given that even the gloomiest of us can occasionally be happy?) If you aim to study wisdom, or happiness, presumably in the hope of finding out how we can all be wiser and happier, you had better be clear about the object of study; and, as Stephen S. Hall’s Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience shows, that is hard to do.

Hall is a science journalist with an attractively fluent, ebullient style and great enthusiasm for what he writes about. His account of philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific enquiry into the subject of wisdom — expanded from an article for the New York Times Magazine — races accessibly along from classical antiquity to the latest techniques in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain. Armed with a dictionary of quotations and tape recordings from his interviews with researchers, he has tackled a highly interesting but difficult topic with gusto. The question about Hall’s book is — and this is not a criticism of Hall or his endeavour, but a comment on the complexity of the topic — whether the distance he travels is commensurate with the length of the reader’s journey.

First there is the problem of defining wisdom. This is where the opening question bites. If the word “wisdom” is one of those nouns that misleads us into looking for an abstract entity (like “redness” if such a thing is supposed to exist independently of individual red surfaces: the medieval Realists followed Plato in taking such a view, to the justified amusement of their opponents the Nominalists), then the whole enterprise has started on the wrong foot. Part One of Hall’s book is entitled “Wisdom Defined (Sort Of)” and the parenthetical caveat is itself an example of wisdom. Hall’s first and avowedly tentative attempt at a definition is as follows: “Many definitions of wisdom converge on recurrent and common elements: humility, patience, and a clear-eyed, dispassionate view of human nature and the human predicament, as well as emotional resilience, an ability to cope with adversity, and an almost existential acknowledgement of ambiguity and the limitations of knowledge.” Note that this is not a definition of an abstract thing called wisdom but a sketch of the personality characteristics of what one might consider a typically wise individual. Given that context makes the same action wise in one setting and foolish in another, one needs to know more to distinguish patience from passivity, dispassion from fence-sitting, emotional resilience from insensitivity, and so for the rest. Generalities are fine: social scientific investigation needs to get to particulars. Hall’s whole effort is directed to getting at those particulars.

It would seem natural to inspect the biographies and personalities of individuals conventionally held to be wise. Hall reports that a list of such was arrived at by the doubtfully reliable means of giving a questionnaire to members of the general public. The result, apart from a couple of weird surprises, was predictably conventional: Gandhi, Confucius, Jesus Christ, Socrates, Mother Theresa, Solomon, the Buddha, the Pope, Oprah Winfrey, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Ann Landers, Queen Elizabeth II. In my view a sturdy case can be made for just one of these as an exemplar of wisdom: Gautama Buddha. Some of the others were smart, which is a different thing, but they did a wise thing or two as a result of being so. (As for which, if any, of them were good: well, that is a question for a different time, and the answer is by no means straightforward.) As both this and the first attempt at a definition show, the business of getting started on examining wisdom is very fraught: as the countryman said on being asked the route to a distant town, “Well, I wouldn’t begin from here.”

One big problem that infects the social scientific, and especially neuroscientific, study of diffuse and vaguely specified phenomena such as wisdom and happiness is that much of what happens in such study results in expensive and polysyllabic confirmation of what common sense and received wisdom long ago knew. For example: the Stoics of antiquity were strongly in favour of something that was old hat even in their own day, namely, emphasizing the importance of managing one’s emotions by thinking about why one feels them and what the consequences of their unconstrained expression might be. By being reflective and considered, said the Stoics, one can attain “ataraxia,” which means “peace of mind” or emotional stability. Now read Hall: “even-keeled people — Davidson specifically refers to them as ‘emotionally resilient’ — apparently used their pre-frontal cortex, the front part of the brain, which governs reasoning and executive control, to damp down activity in the amygdala, those twin almond-shaped regions deep in the brain that process emotional content.” A good deal else of what Hall reports from the coal-face of current research has this character — for example, that being optimistic is good for health, that older people are wiser than younger people because their awareness of the approach of life’s end detaches them from distractions and trivialities — all thunderingly obvious.

The repetition of such insights in long technical words and after massively expensive fMRI brain scanning is not, though, entirely without point. Leaving aside the necessary sceptical doubts about what fMRI actually shows — correlations mainly, which is not the same thing as causal explanation; and most fMRI work is done on tiny samples of (usually) college students, the “lab rats” of this new discipline — the fact is that confirmation of received wisdom is by itself a gain.

And sometimes research on commonplace assumptions can, as Hall reports, overturn the latter: solitaries in old people’s homes were once assumed to be in some kind of trouble because they were not engaging fully with others; it turns out they can often be the more alert and intelligent ones, who are solitary by choice because they dislike the imposed conformity of life in an old age home. That is just one example: others, of perhaps greater significance still, concern our beliefs about free will and decision making; I will return to this point below.

First, though, one must point to another and quite general difficulty with contemporary research in the social and neurosciences, namely, a pervasive mistake about the nature of mind. Minds are not brains. Please note that I do not intend anything non-materialistic by this remark; minds are not some ethereal spiritual stuff a la Descartes. What I mean is that while each of us has his own brain, the mind that each of us has is the product of more than that brain; it is in important part the result of the social interaction with other brains. As essentially social animals, humans are nodes in complex networks from which their mental lives derive most of their content. A single mind is, accordingly, the result of interaction between many brains, and this is not something that shows up on a fMRI scan. The historical, social, educational, and philosophical dimensions of the constitution of individual character and sensibility are vastly more than the electrochemistry of brain matter by itself. Neuroscience is an exciting and fascinating endeavour which is teaching us a great deal about brains and the way some aspects of mind are instantiated in them, but by definition it cannot (and I don’t for a moment suppose that it claims to) teach us even most of what we would like to know about minds and mental life.

I think the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom put his finger on the nub of the issue in the March 25th number of Nature where he comments on neuropsychological investigation into the related matter of morality. Neuroscience is pushing us in the direction of saying that our moral sentiments are hard-wired, rooted in basic reactions of disgust and pleasure. Bloom questions this by the simple expedient of reminding us that morality changes. He points out that “contemporary readers of Nature, for example, have different beliefs about the rights of women, racial minorities and homosexuals compared with readers in the late 1800s, and different intuitions about the morality of practices such as slavery, child labour and the abuse of animals for public entertainment. Rational deliberation and debate have played a large part in this development.” As Bloom notes, widening circles of contacts with other people and societies through a globalizing world plays a part in this, but it is not the whole story: for example, we give our money and blood to help strangers on the other side of the world. “What is missing, I believe,” says Bloom, and I agree with him, “is an understanding of the role of deliberate persuasion.”

Contemporary psychology, and especially neuropsychology, ignores this huge dimension of the debate not through inattention but because it falls well outside its scope. This is another facet of the point that mind is a social entity, of which it does not too far strain sense to say that any individual mind is the product of a community of brains.

This thought poses challenges for the enterprise Hall reports.  As mentioned, and as succeeding chapters of his book show, neuroscientific evidence sometimes  does the reverse of confirming old common sense. Instead, the research cumulatively suggests that free will, decision-making in uncertain circumstances, and our ability to override our impulse for immediate rewards in order to reap greater gains later are all different than we commonly assume. FMRI scans suggest that (for example) decisions and choices are made quite some time (seconds are eternities in neurology) before we are ourselves conscious of them. This research focuses on simple time-defined choices, and it records brain activity that seems to constitute the decision before the subject reports the decision himself. Leave aside the fact that there are questions about what this research really shows, and note that no fMRI scan is going to track correlations and time-delays in brain activity associated with thinking about a marriage proposal or which college to apply to, as Hall himself is careful to acknowledge. Put this together with the thought that mind is more than brain, and the scale of the task in understanding one desirable feature of mental life — the making of wise choices, the possession of wise attitudes — becomes yet more apparent.

Hall’s final chapter is an extended recognition of this point, and ends by making gestures towards the irreducible “mystery” of wisdom. But the complexity of the task does not entail that it is permanently unresolvable; rather, it forces us to think afresh about what questions we are asking and what phenomena we are investigating. If I were to say (as I am inclined to) that the wisdom of an individual consists in maturity, intelligence (“there is no method but to be intelligent,” said T. S. Eliot; Hall reports studies distinguishing intelligence from wisdom), and self-possession (understood as resistance to blandishments from without and overweening appetites within), this would seem to indicate that wisdom relates to character and behaviour in a social setting, and that we are therefore more likely to learn about it from literature, history, and philosophy than from other sources. This is not to downplay the importance of the new neurologically-informed social sciences, which are fascinating and promising in equal measure; but it is to insist that all our studies need to connect with all our other studies, and that some of them might merit still taking the lead even though others now have superb new machines to aid them. I suspect that Hall shares this view; which is the most interesting implication of his book.