Intelligence, wisdom, ignorance and stupidity
Neal Stephenson “The Diamond Age”
Question: What is the stupidest thing that walks God's green earth?
Answer: An adolescent with above average intelligence.
Right now I'm wondering whether you, gentle reader, are nodding your head in recognition or frowning in puzzlement. If it's the first, you're probably a better than average bright person well past adolescence - or perhaps you have a bright adolescent at home. If it's the second, you might be a better than average bright adolescent, or perhaps an opinionated know-it-all of an adult. (No offense, some of my best friends are opinionated know-it-alls. Some have said that even moi partakes of that nature on occasion.)
Understand something, I am not being holier-than-thou. I was that opinionated twerp, and the fact that I've got an unusually detailed memory often brings painfully embarrassing recollections of exactly how conspicuously stupid I could be as an adolescent and young adult.
As I can recall, an adolescent with above-average IQ can see that he is more intelligent that most of the people around him. What he cannot believe, is that experience counts for anything. He can't believe it because he doesn't have any - it's like the fourth dimension to him.
Somebody once said, that in any conflict between logic and experience, experience is almost always a better guide to action. Logic is a way of dealing with the relationship of facts, or more accurately, propositions. (Statements alleged or assumed to be true representations of reality.) But complex situations can have a huge number of relevant facts, not all them obvious, not all of them known and the relationships between them are often far more complex than we can know. Experience is what leads us to believe that similar situations produce similar outcomes. Not a perfect match, like in a logical syllogism, but enough of a match to guide our actions most of the time.
Note in the above quote by Neil Stephenson. "...the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts." So what's the difference between ignorant and stupid people? Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that ignorance is forgivable - stupidity is not. Ignorance is a lack of facts, which may be in no way the fault of the ignorant. Stupidity is willful failure to face facts or learn from experience.
Stupidity is independent of intelligence, and in fact high intelligence often empowers stupidity and gives it greater scope to do harm. A not-too-bright guy may make stupid decisions about buying a new car, but is scarcely likely to do the kind of harm that's been done by academics and intellectuals addicted to theorizing about things they have no competence in.
Don't get me wrong, I think theory is necessary to create structure for the knowledge we have, and guide the further search for knowledge. But theory without experience drifts into fantasy. Experience without theory just drifts.
So if that's the difference between intelligence, ignorance and stupidity, what is the thing we call wisdom? It seems to have something to do with intelligence informed by experience, but that's a description of how it comes about rather than a definition. Someone suggested to me once that you are wise when you are no longer a significant contributor to your own pain. It seems to me that there ought to be more to it than that, but that'll do till something better comes along.