other day I was chatting with a colleague about that most optimistic of
acronyms — DIKW. In the best of all possible worlds, D (Data) would smoothly
flow into I (Information), which would in turn glide into K (Knowledge),
which would finally emerge as W (Wisdom). But in the real world, this flow
model seems to occur somewhat less often than water learns to flow uphill.
Why? Well, just
from my personal experience, I wonder if we spend enough time and effort
on that last giant step, the one from Knowledge to Wisdom. I started to
tote up the number of my own educational experiences from which I had emerged
feeling noticeably wiser. Suffice it to say, in this calculation, I not
only didn't run out of toes, I didn't run out of the fingers on one hand.
In my lifetime, I can recall clearly three educational settings devoted
to inculcating what I would call pure wisdom: a 1-hour class in junior
high school English devoted to logical fallacies; a dozen hours studying
the processes of creativity for a college class in aesthetic philosophy;
and 2-3 hours during a multi-session workshop on effective writing techniques
at a former place of employment.
Don't get me wrong,
bits and pieces of wisdom lie strewn across the landscape of life. Just
open any quotation book and simply flip from page to page to find life-changing
guidance engulfing you. And any serious study of any subject increases
one's knowledge, which affects the underpinnings of wisdom. Life and experience
— your own or what you observe of others — has lessons to teach every day.
But there is considerable value to approaching the acquisition of wisdom
in a clear, direct, organized manner. For one thing, the simple fact of
treating wisdom as an acquirable skill can give an enormous boost to those
daunted by the length of the road ahead. It's like hiking a third of the
way up a steep incline and then, just as you despair of ever reaching the
top and wonder whether you should just slip and slide back to the bottom,
along comes a four-wheel drive vehicle with a driver calling out, "Hey,
buddy! Want a lift?" Hallelujah! Up and at 'em!
For me, the first
breakthrough was that one class session in junior high on logical fallacies.
Right there I learned how to kick the tires on one's assumptions and check
the gas tank for sufficient verified information before driving off at
high speeds. Not that I always apply logic to every situation, but I still
understand the logic of why I don't do so, enough to sense when it's dangerous
not to. If you know what I mean?
Of course, I went
to a Catholic school, which followed a diluted version of the great Scholastic
tradition, one which long enshrined Aristotelian syllogistic reasoning.
In my Catholic college, philosophy was a required minor. Hmm. Wonder how
life's treating the infidels these days? Where do the unchristened learn
how to think?
Let's turn to our
old friend, Yahoo!. (OK. Call me a Web dullard. I just love little old
Yahoo!. Always has something to say about anything, but never too much
chatter and usually fairly well filtered for quality. A great starting
place.) Slinging in the search phrase "logical fallacies," I got one single
hit from Yahoo! — once again proving that this is not the best of
all possible worlds. The hit was for "Stephen's Guide to the Logical Fallacies"
a site that not only carried a lengthy index to fallacies, but links to
logic resources on the Web. Each entry in the index explained the basic
error and then linked to longer explanations with illustrations.
One of the links
led to a link that led to a link to an article on "Fallacy" in the online
Encarta Encyclopedia from Microsoft. Here one found distinctions between
"formal fallacy" and "informal fallacy." Formal fallacies stem from errors
in syllogistic construction, such as "Hitler liked Wagner. Hitler was a
Nazi. Anyone who likes Wagner is a Nazi." The informal ones stem from lack
of relevant evidence or clear understanding of the arguments. One example
of an informal fallacy is "defending a conclusion by an appeal to force."
("How'd you like a knuckle sandwich?" "Not much." "I knew you'd learn to
agree with me.")
Stephen of the
Stephen's Guide site has instructions on how to use the guide. The bulk
of the instructions very kindly and — dare I say it — wisely advise people
not to run amok and start loudly identifying every logical fallacy they
see by name and nature. Stephen points out that it would not be polite
— also not prudent. Most important, Stephen suggests that we use the index
to verify our own thoughts and beliefs, learning to remove the beam from
our own eye before we start working on the motes in the eyes of others,
to paraphrase the Scriptures.
Of course, Stephen
is right. The true seeker of wisdom will always prefer enlightenment of
self to easy victories in public arguments. On the other hand, a well-developed
knack for putting one's fingers on the flaws of an argument can make one
relatively devastating in verbal combat. If you feel kindly and generous,
you could approach your potential opponent privately and point out the
fatal flaws. Of course, that would take considerable diplomatic skill,
but, if you pull it off, you could turn an opponent into an ally. Even
the pursuer of wisdom looks, whenever possible, to do good and to
Logic, such a wonderful
tool. Wisdom, such a wonderful goal.