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On Why It Might Be Wise To Think More About Wisdom

Phil Torres
By Phil Torres
Ethical Technology

Posted: Oct 1, 2010

“In a world torn with strife and warfare, perhaps no problem is more important [than that of understanding and developing wisdom], as wisdom may be the only hope out of the bloodshed.” - Robert Sternberg

As many IEET readers are acutely aware, the incipient genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) revolution will introduce a variety of advanced technologies that are dual-use in nature. That is, these technologies (and the related research) will be employable as means to both good and bad ends, depending on the intentions of the user.[1]

Furthermore, even when users’ intentions are good, such artifacts have the potential to bring about catastrophes due to mere error (rather than terror), as in the case of accidents and unintended consequences. The result is a significant increase in the number of existential risks that threaten the survivability of Earth-originating intelligent life, namely Homo sapiens and our hypothetical “posthuman” progeny.

It is, I believe, intuitive to think that having “more bright minds and more minds that are brighter” dedicated to actualizing the benefits of GNR technologies while mitigating/eliminating the perils is a good idea. That is to say, one plausible course of action would involve the development and use of cognitive enhancements - or, in more general terms, the creation of superintelligent agents (which could, at least in theory, also be achieved through AI).

But (super)intelligence is not sufficient for a safer future. We wouldn’t be better off with a society full of “evil geniuses,” for example. Thus, most theorists would concur, I suspect, that we also need wisdom - and lots of it! As Bostrom and Sandberg state [PDF], “society faces many pressing problems which would be more readily solved if its members were smarter, wiser, or more creative,” and this seems correct, or at least reasonable to assert.
image 2
But what exactly is wisdom? Would augmenting our cognitive capacities entail a corresponding increase in how wise we as individuals or a collective whole are? What might a “wisdom enhancement” look like?

Although philosophers since Plato have discussed wisdom, the concept has received surprisingly little philosophical attention in recent times. This contrasts with - as I understand it - a relatively new and burgeoning domain dedicated to understanding the nature of wisdom, from both an abstract theoretical and more concrete folk perspective, within psychology, gerontology, and other fields in the neighborhood.

For example, the psychologist Robert Sternberg has proposed what he calls the “balance theory” [PDF] of wisdom. This is not intended to be a folk account of the concept, but a robust “explicit theoretical” account of what constitutes wisdom. In Sternberg’s view, wisdom is “the application of intelligence and experience as mediated by values toward the achievement of a common good through a balance among (1) intrapersonal, (2) interpersonal, and (3) extrapersonal interests, over the (1) short and (2) long terms, to achieve a balance among (1) adaptation to existing environments, (2) shaping of existing environments, and (3) selection of new environments.”

image 3 But what exactly does “balance” consist of? Sternberg states that balance ultimately depends on one’s values - but he refrains from endorsing any set of values, or arguing that wise people tend to adopt a particular value-system. (Sternberg does note, however, that most religions appear to share a common set of values; see also this article from James Hughes on the limitations of reason, given the Humean distinction between is and ought.) Nonetheless, Sternberg’s definition seems to capture the pre-theoretic notion that wisdom pertains not just to smarts but to good judgment, compassion for others and a knowledge of how best to live life. Wisdom is, indeed, the apotheosis of human excellence.

In contrast, Paul Baltes and colleagues have argued [PDF] that wisdom “is not a primarily cognitive phenomenon. Rather, our analyses suggest that wisdom involves cognitive, emotional and motivational characteristics, and is a variant neither of intelligence nor of personality dimensions that can be assessed with psychometric tests.” Thus, Baltes reports that “personality-related factors, such as openness to experience, generativity, creativity, or judicial cognitive style” are more predictive of wisdom than cognitive factors like intelligence.

Recent work by psychologists thus supports the proposition that increasing our intelligence will not guarantee a better world. As Sternberg has pointed out numerous times, general intelligence (”g” as measured by standard IQ tests) is on the rise throughout most of the world (the “Flynn effect”), yet the world in which we live appears to be no less (or maybe significantly less) secure than it ever was.[2]

But this does not mean that augmenting human intelligence is not a necessary condition for enhancing wisdom. Consider, for instance, the following analysis of wisdom given by the philosopher Sharon Ryan:

An agent S is wise if and only if:

(i) S has extensive factual and theoretical knowledge.
(ii) S knows how to live well.
(iii) S is successful at living well.
(iv) S has very few unjustified beliefs.

In the context of human enhancement, several points come to mind with respect to this definition. First, as suggested above, even if cognitive enhancements that aim to augment human intelligence are insufficient for enhancing our faculties of wisdom, they may nonetheless be necessary.

That is, if being wise requires one to have extensive factual and theoretical knowledge, then it follows that increasing our ability to effectively process and retain the relevant information would help satisfy this condition. Cognitive enhancements become important here because, as mentioned in a prior article, collective human knowledge is growing at an exponential (or near exponential) rate while the unenhanced mind remains relatively fixed in its finitude. “Extensive” means much more today than it did in the past, and consequently the only way to gain truly extensive knowledge would involve augmenting the cognitive abilities of the individual human.[3]

There is also the third condition of successfully living well. Imagine for a moment that living well requires one to engage in an activity A, but that due to a congenital defect, John is unable to engage in A. By fitting him with, say, a prosthetic limb - maybe a myoelectrically-controlled limb that allows for fine motor control - he is then able to do A. Now imagine that living well requires one to engage in an activity B that no human, due to limitations inherent in our evolved bodies and minds, can do (or do well).

Here the creation of an enhancement, e.g., one that introduces an entirely new capacity rather than merely substituting for a lost capacity, may facilitate the process of doing B, thereby enabling the human being to (more) successfully “live well.”

There is also the interesting issue of wisdom and age. One reason, of course, that wisdom has become an object of study among gerontologists is that while many cognitive abilities typically atrophy with age, the metacognitive abilities associated with wisdom tend to increase, or at least remain stable. Wisdom and experience are, to some degree, causally connected.

This is of interest because a major transhumanist project is, of course, the creation of strategies to render human senescence negligible, i.e., to radically extend our “healthspans.” What might this do for wisdom? Well, if wisdom and experience are related, then increasing our capacity to have (and then later recall) experiences over extended periods of time would, at least ostensibly, tend to amplify wisdom.[4]

In conclusion, the above discussion is speculative in nature and contains a number of simplifications. (Admittedly, I’ve only recently discovered the sizable literature on wisdom produced by psychologists and gerontologists.) Nonetheless, I have become convinced not only that studying wisdom is important and valuable (see this article’s opening quote), but that it is especially relevant to the transhumanist project.

Most transhumanists are, as mentioned above, quite cognizant of the perils associated with advanced technologies, and thus many emphasize the need for caution and circumspection as the GNR revolution unfolds. Developing a better understanding of what constitutes wisdom, how it develops on the ontogenetic timescale (and culturally), what its neural bases are, and - crucially - how advanced technologies might be used to enhance individual and collective wisdom would no doubt further the cause of prudent transhumanists. It would be nice to see this fascinating topic discussed more within the transhumanist literature!


1. There are at least two different significations of “dual use”: one refers to entities that can be used for civilian and military purposes, and the other refers to entities that can be used for “good” or “bad.” See this article for more.

2. See this article for further discussion. The ideas are elaborated in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Future Studies entitled “Risk Mysterianism and Cognitive Boosters.”

3. For more on this idea, see “Emerging Technologies and the Future of Philosophy” forthcoming in Metaphilosophy. A penultimate draft can be found here.

4. One reason people learn to live well and avoid making certain mistakes is because they’ve made those mistakes, or seen others make those mistakes, in the past. Imagine if one had lived through the Crusades, the Scientific Revolution, both the World Wars, and into the present. Now imagine if a large portion of the human population had such experiences. I suspect - although clearly this is, for multiple reasons, a rather tenuous suspicion - that the world today would be much better off than it is. It would be a slightly wiser world.

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Sharon Ryan writes: “An agent S is wise if and only if:

(i) S has extensive factual and theoretical knowledge.
(ii) S knows how to live well.
(iii) S is successful at living well.
(iv) S has very few unjustified beliefs.”

Unjustified according to S, or unjustified according to a selected set of people who disagree with those beliefs? I dunno, it just seems to me that Ms. Ryan wants to consider the wise religious people out of the category of “wise.” Now is that fair?


“Unjustified” according to an objective epistemic standard. One common account of such a standard states, basically, that a belief is justified when it’s supported by the evidence. Thus, the belief that, say, cells exist is justified because there’s good evidence for the existence of cells, whereas the belief that Zeus exists is not because there’s an absence of evidence for the presence of Zeus. This is the “evidentialist” account of justification; there’s also a “reliabilist” account that’s gained popularity among epistemologists in recent years.

Condition (iv) attempts to capture the interpretation of wisdom expressed in Socrates’ famous assertion that “All I know is that I know nothing.” Indeed, it seems wrong to call someone wise who thinks they know stuff they don’t really know—e.g., that God definitely exists (or definitely doesn’t exist, for that matter), that Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God are one and the same being, that the Muslim martyr will be rewarded with 72 virgins after death, and so on. On the above account, then, one might satisfy the first three conditions but not the fourth, and thus be in some sense “close” to wisdom, but he or she would not count as genuinely wise.

I should add that the issue of what constitutes wisdom is still very much a matter of debate—the author herself is not arguing that her account is absolutely correct, just that it’s pretty close. Furthermore, there probably aren’t necessary and sufficient conditions for a concept like wisdom, i.e., there probably aren’t strict boundaries to the category of “wise people.” Thus, one might want to describe an individual who is, say, a scientologist but otherwise has extensive knowledge, knows how to live well and does so successfully as being “wiser” than someone who satisfies only, say, two of the conditions listed.

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