11/08/2007

Why no 'scientific wisdom'?

Why do people often talk about 'scientific knowledge,' but we virtually never hear of scientific wisdom? Is there something about the content or practices of science that precludes them from counting as wisdom? After all, if ‘wisdom’ means something in the neighborhood of 'deep, important, or fundamental knowledge,' it seems (to me at least) that science should be a paradigm case of wisdom.

Is this merely a linguistic quirk that bears no relation to the relationship between the nature of science and the nature of wisdom? Or does the fact that we rarely—if ever—speak of 'scientific wisdom' reveal something important? Here's a reason for thinking the latter.

Science provides instrumental reasons for action only, not categorical ones: If you want to build a nuclear bomb, then the atomic theory of matter will be an extremely useful tool in designing the weapon. It is no part of physics—or any other of the (paradigmatic?) (natural?) sciences—to say whether you should build a bomb or not. Science does not inform us as to what should be valued for its own sake, and not merely as a means to some further end (though e.g. sociology could inform us what is in fact valued). The information provided by science only helps us acquire those things we already value. This is closely related, if not identical, to the old saw that science tells us about facts, and says nothing about values. Wisdom, in contrast, is thought to involve knowledge of what should be valued for its own sake (as well as how best to achieve those ends). That is, wisdom can offer categorical reasons, whereas science provides instrumental ones only.

The literature on the relationship between science and values is both vast and contentious. However, I do not know of anyone who says that the content of theories in natural science includes claims about what is valuable for its own sake. (I could be oblivious and/or uninformed about this; I'm no expert in this sub-field.) It may be that the scientific ethos includes e.g. valuing truth over personal gain, but that’s not part of the general theory of relativity.

So now we have a reason why no one says 'scientific wisdom'—science is silent on what is valuable for its own sake, whereas wisdom requires this information.

6 Comments:

At 9/11/07, Anonymous P.D. said...

I don't think that "wisdom" has any technical meaning in common usage. Often, it has the connotation of being nebulous. So one speaks of "common wisdom", "wisdom of the ages", and whatnot.

Note that it seems perfectly fine to me to say that common wisdom among scientists is such-and-so. So I vote that it's just a superficial quirk of language.

 
At 9/11/07, Blogger Drake said...

Another point is that 'wisdom' is often used in contradistinction to factual or propositional knowledge (as, e.g., with the economist who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing). Wisdom on this conception is pretheoretical, or indeed transcends, and arguably disdains, the theoretical.

 
At 18/11/07, Blogger marie-theres said...

"wisdom" to me also seems to me a more abstract concept that is often associated with something close to 'perfect knowledge' about sth, whereas knowledge as such doesn't qualify the state of its completion...it can be developed, revised, adjusted etc. You can't do all of these things with wisdom though, at least not that I am semantically aware...
I like the idea though.

 
At 13/2/08, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reference explains why the word wisdom does not apply to science as it is now done.

www.aboutadidam.org/lesser_alternatives/scientific_materialism/index.html

 
At 20/2/08, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is actually quite of bit of recent literature discussing this very issue. Nicholas Maxwell's book *From Knowledge to Wisdom* argues that science needs to free itself from Enlightenment limitations and to reorient itself towards advancing wisdom (see his website www.knowledgetowisdom.org). Robert Sternberg has written or edited four books so far on wisdom from a psychological perspective, and there are several other exploratory wisdom websites with many resource links, essays, etc. See Copthorne MacDonald's www.wisdompage.com and our own www.sophology.org.

 
At 2/9/10, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wisdom is a human quality, Science cant have wisdom only the people who apply and use it. A religion is only as wise as the people who teach it. Wisdom comes from experiences over a period of time, science takes a deeper look at things and takes out the long time period needed and is much better for progression. Things it took people 50 years to understand back in the day to understand and figure out takes a teenager no more than a couple of hours using scientific methods of thinking and reasoning or mathematics and other simple science.

 

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