Science and Sapience

I ran across a quote recently, which I’ll paraphrase: “Knowledge is recognizing that Frankenstein is not the monster. Wisdom is realizing that Frankenstein isthe monster.” This is a post reflecting on science, “knowledge,” and sapience, “wisdom.”

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The seeming contradiction can be resolved by seeing a subtle difference in the two uses of “monster”: in the first, it’s a simple description of Frankenstein’s creation, who is never named in the Mary Shelley novel (but called Adam, like the Biblical first man, in one of the many movie adaptations). In the second, it’s a metaphorical description of “mad scientist” Victor Frankenstein, who rejects his creation, the first of many rejections that sets the creature on a downward spiral. Victor had the knowledge to create life, but not the wisdom to bring it to acceptance in society.

One of the definitions I’ve heard for wisdom is “the capacity for making good decisions.” Knowledge is the information you have; wisdom is choosing what to do with it.

Another aphorism about the difference is Ian Malcolm’s quote from Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” In most of Michael Crichton’s novels, technologists in general are high on the scale for knowledge but low on the one for wisdom.

I’m stepping closer than I like to the swamp of whether there are “things people were never meant to know;” there’s some charm to the notion that if we don’t learn something, someone else will, and possibly to our detriment. Instead I’d like to focus on something else: the capacity for seeing alternatives. If you’re going to make good decisions, you need to be able to see the choices.

When I was a teenager I read Empire Star by Samuel R. Delaney, where he described people’s differing ability to deal with multiplepossibilities. The following is the understanding of the concepts he presented that I developed over the years since then; it may not be the same as what Delaney actually meant.

  • Simplex minds see only one possibility, either rejecting others without thought, or not even recognizing them in the first place. I put a lot of anti-science groups in this category, at least with respect to their hot-button issues.
  • Complex minds can see more than one point of view, perhaps even a spectrum of possibilities between them, but only one “axis” of variation. The classic left/right division in politics is like this, at least when people accept that someone in a different point on the scale isn’t deluded or evil.
  • Mutliplex minds see that there are many axes, many semi-independent ways of looking at something, multiple ways to compare the possibilities.

Part of my teaching philosophy is that, while universities need to convey knowledge, they also need to nourish the capacity for considering multiplicities, to develop multiplex minds. In my narrow technical field of software design, this amounts to considering multiple solutions to a problem, deciding on what criteria (axes) to use to compare them, and coming up with a recommendation and rationale for which to pick. Something bad by one criterion might be good on several others; even if it winds up being rejected, it might suggest possible improvements to the other choices.

Other people have the challenge of instilling professional ethics in our students. When a customer asks for a piece of software, the common technological focus of many software people simply deals with how to do it, not whether it should be done at all. Professions are supposed to have both a body of knowledge and a set of ethics: guidelines for how to make good choices, usually having to to with protecting the public from harm. In our curriculum, like many others, the subject is crammed into a single course. Maybe that’s too narrow a place to try to instill wisdom.

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