Alfred Adler made an interesting, and quite correct, assessment of the goods of the mind, and in their hierarchy. From lowest to highest, he presented these so-called goods of the mind as being information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. He also correctly asserted that acquiring these goods will result in the perfection of the mind. Given the explosion of availability of information and knowledge during the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, it is relatively easy to realize, however, that perfection of the mind is something to be worked toward, not something that is in the realm of probability, as of yet, for man. Yet, it is still in the nature of man to at least make the attempt at the final goal of actually obtaining wisdom.
If we group Adler’s goods of the mind into pairs, information and knowledge, and understanding and wisdom, it is easier to see how the value of each may be more easily determined. Information can simply be isolated facts that may or may not even be related. When related bits of information are grouped together, they then become what is referred to as a body of knowledge. Bodies of knowledge, in the past, were considered to be all that man knew of a subject. Without the benefit of modern communication and technology, bodies of knowledge were slow to change. Today, however, the term body of knowledge is usually prefaced with the adjective current. We are well aware that today’s body of knowledge about any topic can, and usually does, change in an instant as new bits of information freely flow from the massive amounts of both social and scientific research activity that is going on around the world.
The turning point for man, with respect to how information and knowledge are processed, takes place at the point of understanding. If this step is wrongly made, then this path will not lead on to wisdom. How man interprets a body of knowledge forms the basis for action.
Today, we can look to medicine as a perfect example of action that is often based on wrong interpretation of a body of knowledge. It is not even necessary to look at big medical issues to find examples of man’s misunderstanding that is based, however innocently and well intentioned, on limited interpretation of a body of knowledge. For example, thirty years ago, it became a known bit of information that cholesterol clogs arteries and causes stroke and coronary disease. More than twenty years ago, it was found that egg yolks were high in cholesterol. With a growing, but still limited, body of knowledge about cholesterol available to the medical community, the call went out for all individuals to limit their egg intake to no more than two eggs per week. Today, we now understand that all cholesterol is not dangerous. In fact, it is not even the cholesterol that one eats that is dangerous. It is what one’s body does with that cholesterol that makes the difference in the development of disease. Even this can be altered with something so simple as exercise. Within the past year, a major news story informed the American public that it is not necessary to avoid eating eggs to the point of limiting their intake to two per week. What a difference two decades, a few new bits of information, a current body of knowledge, and a little scientific understanding can make.
Wisdom can be described as a state of being in which the individual or the society is confident in that it knows what it knows and will do no harm with that knowledge. The advancement of the individual and the society is dependant on the level of wisdom it has developed from an understanding of available knowledge. While there is a process of becoming wise, there is no destination with the name Wisdom at which either an individual or a society can arrive. In fact, it may be that wisdom comes with realizing that it is the journey toward wisdom that is wisdom itself. This is a dichotomy that is lost on most individuals and societies.
Gaining in wisdom is a process by which man and society truly understands that empirical knowledge is of more value than historical knowledge because so much of historical actions are based on wrongly interpreted facts. This is a basis for the superiority of philosophy, both moral and scientific. Any bits of information may be wrongly grouped into a body of knowledge that is misunderstood and wrongly used as a basis for actions that can have tragic consequences. This is one of the reasons that Socrates and the Bible stress the need to be able to rightly divide the word of truth. In effect, any truth of any individual or society may or may not actually be true, depending on the ability of the individual or society to discern truth.
All of these concepts come together to make up the totality of the human experience and direct the perceptions and resultant actions of human beings. Whether individually or in groups, human beings are capable of acting to do great harm to themselves and to others, all in the name of what they believe to be what they ought to do. The problem arises when human beings make a decision and ultimately teach their beliefs to their children and to other members of their society. Thankfully, this is not a process that, having taken a wrong direction based on incomplete knowledge, is impossible to change. For example, it was once believed that man had dominion over the Earth and that it was his charge to subdue it. Today, man has come to understand that his very survival depends on conservation of the Earth and that subduing it does not equate to summarily destroying all that he encounters. Modern efforts aimed at bringing together a global community for the benefit of all that exists on the Earth may be described as man and society’s having finally realized that it is reaching for wisdom that is important. The proper use of reason and the intellect are the only means of acquiring knowledge, enhancing it with rational understanding, and making wisdom, knowing that he knows, man’s final reward.