The Search for Wisdom


Where can wisdom be found? When I was a little girl I used to like wondering in the woods near our house, and finding a quiet spot, spend time just being, reflecting on the beauty of the first fragile snowdrops. I savored their secret and silent message, that the winter was nearly done and soon it would be spring.

Winter Birch 1

Today children of the same age are more often than not kept indoors, away from exposure to the natural environment and bombarded by entertainment from a whole range of technologies. 

Something of the wonder and innocence of a bygone age seems irreplaceably lost. Or has it? Perhaps our minds are adapting to new w ays of experiencing wonder, but now it is wonder at our own creations, or the creations of others cleverer than us A virtual world replaces the world of nature as it no longer is safe to venture forth, but our minds are still teaming. The question is: how is that elemental wonder related to wisdom? Might that insight speak of a self-conscious connectivity with other beings, other things and maybe even the sacred? Have contemporary connections with tools of our own making weakened the connectivity we have with one another or simply translated it into a new formula?

Many millennia have passed since the first humans began to learn to pay attention to other things, perhaps wondering about their own existence as they started to make tools in a way that expressed more than mere utility. Paleontologists are also starting to find surprising scratch marks on the surface of bones or stones that do not seem to signify anything specific. That doodling goes back deep into the history of hominins, way before the appearance of Homo sapiens. Were they marking experiences of wonder? Or were they signifying a special relationship with someone or something, an implicit wisdom? Trying to discover how that transition into symbolic thought came into being, the move from simply existing in the world to an imaginative engagement with it, is what our current Evolution of Wisdom project is really all about.

Cave Painting Small 1 300x269

But what is wisdom?

Is it equivalent in some way to the human ability for symbolic thought, as Terrence Deacon has described our species? Or, is wisdom the product of that capacity for symbolic imagination? In many ways I like the way biologist Jeffrey Schloss defines wisdom as learning to live in tune with the way the world is. This speaks to me of the capacity for alignment with natural beings and knowing our human place in the natural world in relationship with those beings and things. Other animals might do that too, but they are not self-conscious about it. Wisdom is about knowing we are, or are not, aligned with existing patterns in the natural world, and maybe choosing an alternative.

One of the challenges we have faced in the project on the evolution of wisdom is how to measure the inner life of those who only left faint traces of material markers in the paleontological record. And what markers might be meaningful? Inference of a kind is still possible. For example, no other primate can make shells, beads, and stone tools in the way that was possible for very early hominin societies. What is fascinating is the way that capacity seems to stretch so far back into pre-history, the glimmerings of which look like complex relational skills – wisdom – flickering at the dawn of human becoming. Was this search a drive that so nearly did not turn out in our favor? Did God very nearly have second thoughts? At the least we can say that a symbolic imagination started to appear much earlier than the appearance of Homo sapiens, and certainly before cognitively modern humans came on the scene in the Holocene.

But, for religious believers, wisdom is also a search into the inner truth of things. Christians call that inner truth the Logos and believe that its most perfect expression comes with the incarnation of Christ. Judaism takes a slightly different route and associates wisdom with the Torah. Confucianism associates wisdom with virtue and the good life. But all approach wisdom through the capacity for interrelationships, a search that in Christian theology finds its expression in acknowledging God as Divine Wisdom or Sophia. It is as if the search for wisdom that drove our hominin ancestors comes to be expressed in another plane of reality – this time the spiritual. Science cannot measure easily the transition from more practical forms of wisdom to a search for divine wisdom, or, in the case of Confucianism, for example, inner wisdom and light. The most we can acknowledge is that when religious artifacts started to accumulate, a different kind of experience must have been possible for human societies.

Christ Pantocrator

Yet, it is intriguing, nonetheless, to reflect on when and how and in what circumstances humans started thinking about the divine, God. There are multiple reasons why religious belief surfaced in human communities, and the explanations for those beliefs are legion. Theology insists, however, that it was the experience of God and the sense of the divine presence in things that opens up the human capacity to know divine Wisdom, rather than something that simply emerges from the way humans are. As a little girl the fragile beauty of those first spring flowers brought to me a profound sense of the sacred in a way that I found easier to understand and grasp than, what seemed to me, the more humdrum message from the pulpit. But I also remember that profound wonder of knowing that I am a self, a being unlike other beings, but somehow deeply connected with them. God’s presence was real like a whisper in the leaves – I never doubted that. An understanding of God experienced as powerfully immanent in the natural world is still with me today. This was literally an awakening. Was that in some way analogous to what happened in the experience of our earliest ancestors, an awakening to self and other beings? And most mysterious of all, a deep inner longing that nothing and no one seems to satisfy? A search for God?

The tension between religious awakening and evolutionary biology here remains and we should not seek to avoid it. But we can, perhaps, respect the different metaphysical starting points in evolutionary science and theology, and at least admit that their mutual interaction is enriching for each. Divine wisdom discussed in detachment from practical wisdom shatters the very connectivity that is at the root of the search for wisdom. Wisdom understood as only evolutionary emergence neglects the possibility of wisdom as gift and grace. In the end, it seems to me, at least, scientists and theologians will move forward most effectively by talking together, even if at times they do not always understand each other. We have to live with that tension and become friends nonetheless. For we are all part of the same search: the search for wisdom never ends.

Further Reading
Celia Deane-Drummond. Wonder and Wisdom: Conversations in Theology, Science and Spirituality (DLT, 2006).
Warren S. Brown, (ed.), Understanding Wisdom: Sources, Science and Society (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000).