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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A Distinction Between Wisdom and Knowledge

The age-old slur "Bird brain" is no longer appropriate, I have learned, because they seem to exhibit far more reason and logical acumen than anyone expected (except perhaps David Abram)

A recent study done by University of Cambridge, and Queen Mary, London, found that birds can in fact use tools and reasoning, though they rarely exhibit it outside the laboratory. Birds were given a glass of water - one too narrow for their beaks to reach the water - and several stones. They eventually found that dropping the stones and pebbles into the glass raised the level of the water until it was high enough to drink. They were then rewarded with a floating seed.

Was this sounding familiar? It was a recreation of the classic story by Aesop, who used it as the basis for his moral "necessity is the mother of invention." I love this fable, and I love the study - though for different reasons. The study shows the beautiful underestimation people have of nature: though we embrace technology and urbanism, we are still surprised by how "like us" the world is. It also reminds me of Eckhart Tolle's description of the brain as the "problem-solving" organ, no different than the lungs being the "breathing organ" or the heart the "circulatory organ". Perhaps logic is more universal than the we originally suppose.

The fable, of course, is enjoyable for its timeless message. It is a beautiful and simple illustration of truths that surpass culture, period, and perhaps even species. And what's more enjoyable than talking animals?

How was this portrayed in the media, though? It was presented as evidence that Aesop's fable was based on fact, and that he may have used physical observation to create his stories. Gone is the "truth" that exists out of logical necessity, replaced with "fact", a mere byte of information that can be placed in the annals of human knowledge.

Kant held that a 20 pound note in our head holds no less value than a 20 pound note in our hand. It was an element of his philosophy I had difficulty grasping. I think I understand some of this now, and may propose a second example: Aesop's fables' significance is not rooted in its factual/historical accuracy. Like myths, fables exist not out of a misguided notion of pre-history, but out of a need to find expression for the human condition: why we suffer and feel pain, why we perceive imperfections and feel a need to promote ourselves above them, why we see a world outside ourselves and desire to know what lies beyond.

This isn't to poo-pooh factual accuracy, mind you; understanding historical details, discovering unknown scientific insights, are both important for understanding and respecting our place in the world. But it need not be to the detriment of wisdom.

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