Wisdom Page Updates
This Month's Highlights
Included in this month's issue of the Wisdom Page Updates are:
- Editorial on Wisdom, Well-Being, and the Good
- Online Course on the Virtues
- Introduction to Richard Trowbridge's New Book The Flourishing Earth
- New Book Review: Leaving Truth
- New Book Review: Happiness
- Continuing Update on Book Review Page
Wisdom, Well-Being, and the Good
Descriptions of wisdom frequently identify "well-being" as either the goal of wisdom or the result of living a wise life. In my definition of wisdom, I state that wisdom involves "the desire & creative capacity...to enhance the well being of life, both for oneself and others." Yet, in thinking about this dimension of wisdom, I have often asked myself "What exactly is well-being?" Is it that easy to determine or define? Perhaps it takes someone wise to answer to this question?
Both Leeland Beaumont, who is teaching the online virtues course connected with The Wisdom Page, and I have read and reviewed both Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape and Martin Seligman's Flourish. Lee and I resonated with both books and, I believe, agree that Harris and Seligman attempt to address the question of what well-being is in their respective books.
In essence, Harris argues that well-being and what produces it in people are questions of empirical or factual reality: Well-being and the conditions which support it are scientific questions that can be answered through scientific research. Further, Harris argues that what is good is simply that which supports well-being--hence, the good is an empirical question as well.
Seligman, in his theory of "to flourish"--which is indeed a theory of the nature of psychological well-being--argues that well-being not only can be scientifically researched, but can also be quantitatively determined. Seligman lists five components of "to flourish": positive emotions; engagement with world; positive social relationships; meaning in life; and personal accomplishments--(PERMA for short). On each of these five factors, there is a great deal of empirical data identifying what psychological abilities or behaviors create or enhance these factors.
If we agree with Seligman's views on well-being, then to be wise would be to posses the desire and capacity to realize such ends and help others to do the same. Further, since wisdom is often also identified with the desire and capacity to realize the "good," then following Harris, in so far as being wise involves the desire and capacity to facilitate well-being, then this means the same thing as realizing the good.
Well, Lee recently tossed out the question at me: What research efforts or programs exist to support Harris' position? Now, I asked myself, does he mean what research exists to support the claim that the good is well-being? Or what research exists to demonstrate and detail the empirical nature of well-being?
Turning first to the latter question, I believe Seligman provides a good deal of data and research references on psychological well-being. But I have asked, "Why does Seligman identify these specific five factors?" Are there other factors that may also be critical parts of well-being? How would we determine that?
As it turns out, psychologists and social scientists have for decades attempted to ascertain the critical components of psychological well-being and mental health. We should keep in mind though, following positive psychologists like Seligman and others, that psychological well-being is not simply the absence of symptoms of mental illness or distress; well-being is a set of positive qualities.
I will provide three kinds of examples: Carol Ryff's comprehensive theory of mental health,The Quality of Life Index, and Inglehart's World Values Survey.
Integrating a vast amount of theory and research, Ryff distilled out six fundamental and frequently cited criteria of mental health:
Ryff's criteria significantly overlap with Seligman's, but the match is not perfect. In both cases we have empirically grounded research, but slightly different lists of factors get highlighted. Why the difference? And if there is a difference, perhaps there is still some component that is being missed? (It shouldn't be minimized though how similar the lists are.)
- Self-Acceptance - Positive Attitude toward Self
- Sense of Ongoing Personal Growth
- Purpose in Life - Goals and Sense of Direction - Coherence of Past and Future
- Environmental Mastery - Sense of Control - Belief in Ability to Change Things
- Autonomy - Can Make Decisions
- Positive Relations with Others
Turning to the Quality of Life Index, a much broader list of criteria that support "life satisfaction"--including social, economic, political, and environmental factors--was identified. There is a good deal of research correlating these external factors with the experienced quality of life in individuals. In this case, if psychological well-being is understood as "satisfaction with life" (perhaps even happiness), then there is clearly a set of supporting external conditions that are critical to supporting psychologial well-being. The psychologists, Ryff and Seligman, do not highlight such important external factors.
Finally, a central discovery in Inglehart's research (World Values Survey) into world values is a pervasive shift in individual values from tradition and authority to autonomy and self-expression as countries modernize and improve economically. Values evolve. What constitutes well-being or the good life is not set in stone; it is open and dynamical. If we accept this as a valid observation, then by extension not only the good life but wisdom, too, is open to change; the wise person needs an open and evolving sense of well-being and hence the good.
Briefly, returning to Lee's first question--How can we determine (empirically?) if the good is interchangeable with well-being--I was struck that in his book Harris kept focusing on the well-being of humans in his discussion of the good. Having taught environmental ethics, I am well aware of the argument that ethics needs to be extended to life (and even the earth) as a whole. In making ethical decisions, we need to be concerned about the well-being of all life and not just humans. What kind of empirical research would be needed to demonstrate that Harris' identification of the good with human well-being is too narrow? How did the environmental ethicists make this point? It seems to me that a wise person would realize that well-being and the good must include the totality of life. And not simply because humans need other life forms to exist; rather other life forms have intrinsic worth.
In conclusion, there is a lot of ongoing research into determining psychological well-being and the conditions which support it, but the answers to these questions are not definitively clear and, given the evolutionary nature of things, will probably never be.
Since both science and wisdom involve perspicacious thinking and insight, as well as empirical knowledge, it will probably never be as simple as just looking at the facts to determine what is good or what the good life is.
Online Course on the Virtues
Last month the Wisdom Page Updates
began guiding interested
readers through a free and open on-line course on the virtues. After last month's general introduction to Virtues, we are now ready to study the first of twenty candidate virtues we will examine in detail. We begin at the beginning, with politeness, a mere semblance of virtue, and its more substantial cousin civility. After examining systems of virtues we will apply an understanding of virtues to practical decision making. The overall goal is to improve well-being.
This month's lesson begins at: Candidate Virtues
. Please follow the link to politeness and complete that lesson. Also please complete the four-part assignment concluding that section.
We encourage students to begin now and keep pace with each month's topic. However, students may join later on by studying the introductory materials and then synchronizing with the current month's topic. Students can catch up with a missed lesson at any time.
We want to hear from you. The course includes Instructions for contacting the instructor. In addition, the Wikiversity
platform encourages your participation in improving the course. Comments on each page are welcome on the accompanying "Talk"
page, accessed via the "Discuss" tab.
If you are interested in participating in a forum of active students to discuss assignments and share your thoughts, please let us know and we will work to provide a space for that. Also, we would like to be able to provide conscientious students a completion certificate at the end of the course, but we have not yet decided how best to assess completion. What are your ideas?
We certainly hope you enjoy this tour of the virtues.
Introduction to Richard Trowbridge's New Book - The Flourishing Earth: A Vision of Humans Who Are Wise
The Flourishing Earth: A Vision of Humans Who Are Wise
describes developing a "third mind" that is similar to but not identical with "the observing self," or "self-awareness." The first mind is the body-mind, the second is the thinking-mind. The 3rd mind perceives without labels, concepts or words and, going beyond the sensory, realizes that separate ness is an illusion: all things are connected in a single system, and ultimately one. Thus though the body dies, there is no death for the more basic being out of which separateness arose.
The 3rd mind perceives patterns and energies (such as positive-negative) more than it perceives objects. One sees that the basic energyof the cosmos has a direction: all in it strive to complete themselves, to find wholeness. Unless damaged in its essence, an embryo strives to grow and flourish.
It is possible to develop the 3rd mind as an always-engaged light of this cosmic perspective. For example, one learns to remember, always, "not to sweat the small stuff-and it's all small stuff." A person functionswith three minds active at once. The experience of the 3rd mind is familiar to all even if fleetingly; and the process of its development is very natural. Developing an ever-conscious 3rd mind marks an advance for humans comparable only to walking upright and symbolic language, and so will take much conscious effort for us who are at the beginning of the learning process. Attaining this awareness is the purpose of human being. Anything further is beyond the human.The Flourishing Earth
presents both the vision and the practice clearly, and provides a simple, effective biofeedback tool for developing the 3rd mind. It makes a game of mental training in which clear feedback is delivered to the players. In addition, it presents what may be the most cogent model of, and roadmap toward, a flourishing Earth. It is not policies but perspective and practice that will create the flourishing Earth.Here is a vision worthy of wise humans, a complete life for the holistic age.
Introduction by Richard Trowbridge
New Book Review: Leaving Truth by Keith Sewell - Reviewed by Leland Beaumont
Could it be that truth itself is the problem child? Plato defined knowledge as justified true beliefs. But author Keith Sewell believes
that including truth in that definition is either redundant or absurd. If we define truth as justified beliefs, then it is clearly redundant. If we define truth as something different, perhaps as unjustified beliefs, then we are leaving the definition open to an arbitrary range of indefensible claims.
Applying the now-revised formula Knowledge = justified belief
requires only an effective procedure for determining what is justified and what is not. Calling this a knowledge selection procedure (KSP), he states that it must meet these three conditions:
- It must function to separate proposals into those that are justified and those that are not,
- It must select at most one of various logically exclusive proposals, and
- It has to be feasible to apply.
As an example he presents his own KSP as a hierarchy of five rules based primarily on on-demand repeatable physical observation, his own observations, and reliable testimony offered in good faith by an unbiased expert. He challenges us to write our own KSP and to improve on his if we are unwilling to adopt his.
He proposes that conflicts are best resolved at the level of the governing KSP, and therefore presenting each proponent's KSP is the logical prerequisite to any productive dialogue undertaken to resolve a disagreement. There is no reason to present specific proposals until both parties can agree on some clear governing KSP.
Equipped with our KSP statements, the dialogue can then proceed with careful statements in the form of: "I believe X because it passes the following test established by my KSP." Disagreements are then resolved by examining the justification given in the context of the accepted KSP. There is no longer any need to tolerate "talking past" each other because we know why we believe what we believe and can defend it on that basis.Before exploring the practical implications of leaving truth he challenges skeptics by asking "exactly what more do you guys mean by your 'truths'?" If there is a coherent answer he agrees to listen and apologize, if not then we can safely dismiss the truth illusion and accept only justified beliefs as knowledge. With untethered faith no longer presenting a challenge to reason, he goes on to dismiss theist dogma. This he believes will help clear the way for humans to face and better solve the grand challenges such as poverty, famine, war, violent conflict, and other miseries, that have persisted throughout humanity. He quotes Voltaire: "Those who continue to believe absurdities will continue to commit atrocities." There is no need to reject subjective and emotionally appealing works; however we need to identify them as art rather than as knowledge.
This rather short book often resorts to erudite language and difficult logic to defend its thought provoking thesis. I look forward to seeing a more accessible treatment of the core thesis that would promote wider acceptance and application of these ideas.
New Book Review: Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill By Matthieu Ricard - Reviewed by Leeland Beaumont
After receiving his doctorate in molecular biology, Frenchman
Matthieu Ricard chose to leave his privileged life for the ascetic life of a Buddhist monk. Since then he has been called the happiest person in the world. In this book he describes paths toward happiness drawn from ancient traditions and modern science.
Happiness is a general term encompassing many different experiences. It is important to distinguish pleasure--a fleeting emotion often based on outer circumstances--from contentment-an optimal and long-lasting state of being with an enlightened state of mind--the enduring form of happiness discussed in this book.
Ignorance in the form of ego involvement--described here as attachment to the illusion of the self--is the primary obstacle to happiness. A calm mind, attained through mediation, is essential to lifting the veil, seeing past the illusion, and allowing compassion to flourish. Exercises throughout the book help the conscientious reader practice these mental disciplines and move toward optimal states of being.
I imagine detaching the self by visualizing it as a spoiled three year old child. Think of taking a bratty toddler shopping. He might nag you to buy every toy in sight, make cruel and nasty comments about the appearance or behavior of other shoppers, impatiently ask to go home right now, annoy you with constant whining and misbehavior, and start crying at the least inconvenience. But you are not that child; you can use good judgment, act responsibly, calm the child, and move away from those behaviors. Similarly, the self--that bratty ego--can also be displaced, ignored, and silenced, because it has no substance.
Rigorous scientific examination, using EEG, fMRI, and other techniques confirm that monks who have extensively practiced various meditation techniques have achieved remarkably high levels of positive emotional experiences, mental coherence, and peace of mind. Ricard integrates ancient traditions with modern scientific thought to provide a coherent and reliable message.
A variety of mental disciplines are described, including a general technique for dispelling destructive emotions, and specific remedies to extinguish desire, hatred, and envy. Environmental, biological, and sociological factors affecting well-being are described, and many of these are within our control. The role of humility, optimism, perspectives on time, flow, ethics, and death are all explored in their own chapters.
Although the techniques are derived from the Buddhist traditions, they are presented here as entirely secular skills. The book is exceptionally well written, deep, and entirely accessible to the Western reader. This is not a how-to book full of quick fixes and platitudes. The simple paths described here require commitment, discipline, and practice. They may well change your life.
Futurodyssey & Wisdom Page Updates: Newsletters and Archives
Beginning this fall, I began publishing two newsletters: the revitalized and redesigned Wisdom Page Updates and Futurodyssey (the monthly publication of the Center for Future Consciousness). So readers can view earlier issues, both newsletters now have Archive Pages. View the Wisdom Page Updates Archive Page; view the Futurodyssey Archive Page. The reader can subscribe to the Wisdom Page Updates on The Wisdom Page Contact Page; the reader can subscribe to the Futurodyssey newsletter by going to the CFC website.
|That's it for this month: Wisdom, well-being, and the good; Leland Beaumont's continuing online course on the virtues; two new book reviews by Lee; an introduction to Richard Trowbridge's The Flourishing Earth by the author; and a further update on our growing book review page. Thanks for your interest in The Wisdom Page. |