Knowledge and Wisdom

Just before the official UK ‘Lockdown’ began in March of this year I came across this quote by Immanuel Kant:

“Science is organised knowledge. Life is organised wisdom.”

Kant, an 18th century German philosopher of the Enlightenment period, is regarded as contributing ideas that are central to western philosophy. He is known for his belief that humans are essentially rational, thinking beings whose behaviour is dictated by universal and categorical moral truths or absolutes, for example: it is wrong to lie. In other words, a virtuous or moral person does not lie in any situation or context, regardless of the possible or actual consequences. Intrinsic to Kant’s moral philosophy is the idea that an individual’s emotional response is irrelevant and redundant. Alongside this, however, one of Kant’s immutable moral truths was that of the rule that all human beings warranted respect and dignity.

As Lockdown progressed through April, May and June I wondered more and more about Kant’s view of morality and the new world of Covid-19, scientific knowledge, the intellectual infrastructure of empiricism, quantification and scientific facts and global political strategy that was manifest in the lives of virtually every person on the planet. As a psychologist, whose ‘knowledge base’ is inevitably questioned as being insufficiently ‘scientific’ in terms of those criteria set by the natural, ‘hard’ sciences, i.e. objective, ‘evidence-based’, measurable, quantifiable and capable of producing universal truths and laws, I was uneasy.

I continue to feel uneasy when I reflect on the emotional and relational realities of billions of individuals across the world. When I think about the possible long-term effects of months of social isolation, the increased reliance upon technologically-mediated, commercially motivated, communication, interaction, work, education and entertainment I am more uneasy. Add to this concerns about the limitations on facial expression and non-verbal communication that face coverings bring and there is a lot about which I am uncomfortable. Surely respect for and the dignity of sentient human experience is somehow being compromised in these arrangements? If so, how is it that so little air and print space has been occupied by this perspective?

Governments across the world have used data-flooding strategies to communicate and justify the measures they have employed to stem the effects of the pandemic. A relatively small proportion of the general population has the statistical know-how to look at the data critically and usefully, for example, the presentation and selection of data has changed in subtle ways throughout the last few months and these changes are crucial to making sense of what is put before us. We have never had so much data (scientific and mathematical knowledge) to take in, process and assimilate but two questions keep coming up for me:

  1. Is the knowledge base upon which governments have drawn sufficiently wide and balanced?
  2. How wise has all this knowledge, made available by government through the media, made us?

No doubt, in time, life will answer. Maybe the thoughts of another philosopher, from further back in history may have something to contribute?

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing (Socrates)

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