Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wisdom and the Heart: The Role of Affections in Epistemology

The Scriptures teach two basic things about wisdom:

1) It is the among most valuable things you can acquire. It is far more so than material wealth
2) It is also decidedly difficult to acquire and is apparently the result of a protracted, intentional process.

But what is it? If we are to be about the business of acquiring wisdom, shouldn’t we understand what it is? For years I operated based on this anecdotal distinction: knowledge is the accumulation of facts and wisdom is the ability to bring facts to bear effectively on a particular decision. This has been a descent working definition for me for years. But I recently have had to question it on the grounds that it is far too cognitive.

You see, the book of Proverbs (the go-to Judaeo-Christian text for all things wisdom) describes it as a far more complex phenomenon. I was startled into this recognition when I happened upon the following verse.

Proverbs 16:21
“The wise in heart are called discerning,
and pleasant words promote instruction.”

It describes wisdom as a property of the heart as well as the mind. Once I saw this, I could not believe how ubiquitous it was.

Proverbs 2:10
“For wisdom will enter your heart,
and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.”

Proverbs 18:15
“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge;
the ears of the wise seek it out.”

Proverbs 23:12
“Apply your heart to instruction
and your ears to words of knowledge.”

Proverbs 23:15
“My son, if your heart is wise,
then my heart will be glad;”

Proverbs 24:32
“I applied my heart to what I observed
and learned a lesson from what I saw:”

Wisdom as the Bible talks about it is not just a condition of our cognitive faculties but also our hearts. But does this make sense? Isn’t this phenomenological language anyway? Isn’t the ‘heart’ (or, in the Hebrew idiom, ‘the bowels’) is just a specific function of the brain anyways?

Well, yes, but there does seem to be a basic principle here that good choices are not co-extensive with good decisions. Or to put it quasi-quantitatively:

Choice = Understanding + Volition

There are two ways a choice can go poorly. I can not know the right thing to do or, I can know the right thing to do, but, for any of a variety of motivations, do something else anyways. Understanding is only part of the equation. Wisdom is not just sound understanding, but also sound affections. It is not only a function of what we know, but also what we love.[2]

But the epistemological waters are even muddier than that. Because of the problem of confirmation bias,[3] the well documented phenomenon that the human brain over represents the reliability of information we want to believe…understanding itself is a function of our affections.[4] Wisdom has to include not only knowing the right things but also wanting the right things.

Many of best theologians recognized this[5]. They saw the process of spiritual growth, not simply as training the mind, or training the will, but of cultivating a new set of affections. We are motivated by what we love. The standard cultural advice to ‘follow your heart’ is not only destructive…it is fundamentally useless. We WILL follow our hearts. We WILL act on behalf of our deepest affections. Spiritual growth is the process of training those affections towards the best things.

This post was written while listening to This is War by 30 Seconds to Mars
[1] Also Proverbs 2:1-2, 10:8, 14:33, 15:14, 16:23, 23:19
[2] Jesus takes this idea up when he says ‘out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.’ Actions betray affections. That is why Christians don’t just talk about the message of Christ but also the work of Christ. Because we don’t just require better information on how to live, we require better passions to live it for.
[3] The idea of ‘Confirmation Bias’ has recently found its way into popular parlance, mainly through the work of the ‘New Atheists.’ It is a helpful and sound critique. However, it is the classic example of a two edge sword that wounds the bearer as deeply as the assaulted. (Swords like that are best reserved for the self immolation of honest reflection.) The ‘New Atheists’ brandish confirmation bias as if it is only theists that are subject to it, but can not demonstrate why a secular worldview is an antidote to this phenomena.
[4] The idea that ‘the fear of Yahweh is the beginning of knowledge’ also bears on the idea that epistemology is far more complex than simple cognition, but that is a topic for another day…and probably another author.
[5] Particularly, Jonathan Edwards and Augustine are known for this.


Tyler said...

Dude, an equation for wisdom?!? That is fantastic, nerdy, and very Stanford! Wanting those right things, turning our heart toward them...yes that is a challenge.

Rebecca said...

Stan-- I really appreciate this post. We are currently studying Proverbs in the BIble Study I am currently doing with the PWOC on base. And yes, wisdom starts with the heart. The study began with the simple question of: what do you desire? Whatever is in your heart is what will direct all of your choices, words, actions, etc. In Prov 3, I think, it says to write love and faithfulness on the tablet of your heart. I pictured it like a sieve... wisdom is what comes out of your heart when it has passed through the love and faithfulness sieve. You could probably get an equation out of that too, I bet.