What is your Wisdom Quotient (WQ)?

Just by answering 39 questions one can find out just how wise they really are.

Take the quiz.

On May 6, 2007 The New York Times Magazine ran an article by Stephen S. Hall entitled Can Science Tell Us Who Grows Wiser? I admit that I was skeptical about this piece before I read it. Just what definition of wisdom were these scientists using, and how does one go about measuring such a concept? That was just my intuition, my gut feeling. I have not studied psychology, sociology, or even philosophy (I just muddle my way through various books, magazines, and blogs), and so I could not bring a credible argument to counter the assumptions laid out in the title. Of course, I went on to read the article.

The article was not very revealing about what wisdom actually is, although it did present various researchers’ attempts at pinning this elusive subject to the mat.

Certain qualities associated with wisdom recur in the academic literature: emotional resiliency and the ability to cope in the face of adversity; an openness to other possibilities; forgiveness; humility; and a knack for learning from lifetime experiences.

What emerged from that analysis was that wisdom meant a lot of different things. But it was always associated with knowledge, frequently applied to human social situations, involved judgment and reflection and was almost always embedded in a component of compassion.

… defined wisdom as “an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life.”

I don’t have any problem with the work that these researchers are doing. They are “pushing the envelope” and taking risks as is often the case with scientists. And I especially applaud their attempts at defining wisdom. As a wannabe philosopher myself, I can certainly relate to their desire for a greater understanding of what knowledge is and how it changes over a person’s lifetime and whether or not this knowledge ever transforms into wisdom. As the writer Stephen S. Hall notes:

But there is a delicious paradox at the heart of the study of wisdom. As difficult as it is to define, the mere contemplation of a definition is an irresistible exercise that says a lot about who we aspire to become over the course of a lifetime and what we value as a society.

But when they conduct experiments to measure a person’s wisdom, I just can’t suspend my disbelief. I’m reminded of the song by Jim Croce that begins: If I could save time in a bottle…. Or maybe from the Sound of Music: How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? It’s the catching it and putting it in a bottle that I question.

Later the article examines research on how the brain controls our emotions over time, and how a more balanced set of emotions might contribute to or be a sign of wisdom. Much of the research involves the elderly and examining their quality of life, which I also applaud. Overall the story was informative.

Here’s my favorite definition of wisdom found in the article and it comes from psychologist Erik Erikson:

he described [wisdom] as “ego integrity versus despair”

And now to the quiz. Monika Ardelt a researcher mentioned in the article has come up with a set of 39 questions which she uses to measure a person’s wisdom. The NYTimes has provided an online version. Take the quiz and see how you do.

On my first go I rated a 4.1 (the top third) and I tried to be honest but as Hall writes about taking this quiz:

There is, of course, something utterly quixotic about assessing human wisdom on the basis of a self-report test in which subjects agree or disagree with statements like “People are either good or bad” and “I always try to look at all sides of a problem.”

My second time through I answered as I imagined the test thought a wise person would or should, and that time I scored 4.9 (the highest being 5.0). Lastly I went back and took it a third time, and this time I was really hard on myself not to answer as if my ego were at stake (remember that quote from Erikson) but as truthfully as I could, and not surprisingly my score dropped to 3.1 (just above that lower third of people with little wisdom). Somehow this exercise raised even more questions. Odds are that we will never know for sure that what we’ve caught in that bottle is wisdom, or not.

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Beware of the excluded middle.

The following post was inspired by a debate at the talking philosophy blog that concerned a recent poll about humanism in the U.K.

Black and white. On and off. Left and right. Alive and dead. 7 and 22. You and me. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (their inclusion will make sense later). These are a few pairs of things that conform to the law of the excluded middle. So, what’s that?

I have just begun to learn about formal logic and am currently reading Logic Made Easy: How to know when language deceives you by Deborah J. Bennett. Two of the first things that are introduced in the book are the law of the excluded middle and the law of noncontradiction. Simply put: A is B or A is not B, it cannot be both, no middle ground, i.e. black is white or black is not white; and something is A or it is not-A, otherwise we have a contradiction, i.e. I cannot be both Martin and not-Martin.

It would be nice if the “real” world were so structured. There would be no room for confusion. Maybe, I don’t know. But life isn’t that way. It’s full of grayness and nuance, and thank goodness for that! And we forget that at our own expense.

Bennett writes in Logic Made Easy :

How many times have you heard an argument (intentionally?) exclude the middle position when indeed there is a middle ground? Either you’re with me or you’re against me. Either you favor assisted suicide or you favor people suffering a lingering death. America, love it or leave it. These are not instances of the excluded middle; in a proper statement of the excluded middle, there is no in-between. Politicians frequently word their arguments as if the middle is excluded, forcing their opponents into positions they do not hold.

If we are not allowed any alternatives outside of what is presented as our choices when clearly there are other options, then we are faced with a false dilemma. How about this example: The police never use excessive force when arresting a person or the police always use excessive force when arresting a person. Nope, I don’t feel like answering that one.

It’s time to return to the Clinton-Obama pair mentioned earlier. To follow the pattern I employed for the other pairs, we have: Hillary Clinton is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton is not Barack Obama; and Barack Obama cannot be both Barack Obama and not-Barack Obama. But that’s not why I have introduced this pair of politicians.

Let’s imagine that the race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. president is still ongoing (as it is when this post is written) and that there are eight official candidates (as there are). Two candidates seem to have captured the nation’s attention. They are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Now let’s imagine that there are two rival newspapers competing for news on this political contest. But it’s early in the campaign and the primaries are months away with all eight candidates still seeking votes. One paper decides to commission a new poll, but this time the paper just wants to know, of the two “popular” contenders, who does the public feel will win the nomination. So the question the pollsters will ask likely Democratic voters is: Are you more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton, or for Barack Obama in the primary? In this poll the respondent is given the third choice of “I don’t know.”

But the other paper has got wind of this new poll and decides to commission one of its own. In order to “scoop” its competitor this newspaper tells the pollsters to leave off the third option and to get the respondents to choose only between Clinton and Obama.

The results are in. The first poll reports: 16% for Clinton, 16% for Obama, and 68% “don’t know.” So the first paper calls the race a dead heat between Clinton and Obama for the nomination. On the other side of town the rival paper reports: 40% for Clinton, and 60% for Obama. The second paper’s headline calls Obama the Democrats’ choice for 2008. So has the second paper “scooped” its rival? Which poll is more accurate? Does Obama have the nomination in hand?

In fact both papers have mislead their readers. With eight candidates still in the race and most likely still on the ballot (it’s possible one or another might drop out before the primaries), both sets of pollsters have presented their respondents with false dilemmas. The other six contenders are left out of the poll, they have become the excluded middle.

Even if we suppose that in the first poll only those voters truly likely to vote for either Clinton or Obama are represented by the first two numbers, and that the remaining 68% is an aggregate of the inclinations of the other six candidates’ supporters, then we still can’t conclude that the race is a dead heat between the two “front runners.” Maybe John Edwards, if he were included in a poll of all eight candidates, would have received 50% and left the remaining 18% to be divided among the other five candidates. Then clearly there would be a sole front runner.

The second paper’s poll is just as inaccurate. If we grant that the 16% received by both Clinton and Obama in the first poll are valid reflections of their standings in the race, so what? We still can’t pull any truth from the second poll, for that remaining 68% have been forced to choose a candidate that is not their preferred choice and no one knows what criteria they used to give the pollsters an answer. The inclusion of their responses is worthless and misleading.

So be wary of pollsters bearing false dilemmas. And anyone else trying to get you to believe that the world is made up of just black and white.

Passing out pamphlets.

When I was in high school in Worcester, Massachusetts I rode the city buses home from school. One block from the school was the bus stop and I rode from that corner down the hill into downtown and eventually to City Hall.

Here I waited for my connecting bus that would take me to my neighborhood. In front of City Hall was a very broad sidewalk. The sidewalk was always full of people — other riders waiting on buses, pedestrians passing by on their way to somewhere, people with no place to be but finding here better than there — the usual mixture of folk. Most of us passed the time watching the traffic and each other and for the most part kept to ourselves. Occasionally we would approach one another to ask the time or to ask if a particular bus had come yet, or if we were less than fortunate to ask for a hand out, some spare change.

I remember that once in a while this unspoken rule of personal space was challenged by those with a special message to share. It could be a young woman asking for a donation in exchange for a copy of a small radical newspaper. Not many papers were distributed and the woman would move on down the street. One day I saw a man with a sign on an easel proclaiming that the U.S. had better get out of the U.N. I was not very mature when it came to foreign policy so I listened to this guy’s pitch with a bit of indifference. My interest was probably more than what he received from the other pedestrians who never even looked his way. Or if they did, it was with a smile and a shake of the head. Of course, the ubiquitous street evangelical was a part of this group offering a message. This message was always one of repentance and having Christ as your personal savior. Again, most people on the sidewalk kept their relationship with God to themselves and never made eye contact with the preacher. Finally, a few times there were the hawkers passing out fliers to everyone who didn’t run away. Most would accept the paper as an agreement that they would then be left alone, and soon after would either toss the paper message in the nearest trash can or use it to wipe the seat in the bus shelter free of water or whatever, and then let the flier fall to the ground at their feet to keep company with the rest of the litter.

I reflect on these memories as I try to come to terms with writing this blog. Am I just one of those with a message on the street? What kind of reaction do my postings exhibit in my readers? I may not even have many readers, if any. On a sidewalk filled with individuals will anyone take the time to look my way? The sidewalk of the internet is so wide that my message is at enormous risk of never reaching anyone. And there are not just a few hawkers but a whole host with fliers of all colors and sizes. I can hope that a few will not run away and will accept my pamphlet of thoughts and opinion, and that some number of these will read and enjoy my work. When I return to the sidewalk day after day I persist and I shout, and I have images one day and mp3s the next, and I hope that my audience is growing. Most I know will never be reached and would rather be left alone with their personal space intact. I wouldn’t be surprised if to some my pamphlet is no better than litter. But as in the real world, there are some to whom the woman’s newspaper speaks, and some who would love nothing more than for the U.S. to ditch the U.N. And so I write for that reader who doesn’t use my work as a means to a dry seat in the bus shelter.