Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A wise man once said...

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Don't judge a book by its cover.

A ship is safe in harbour, but that's not what ships are for.

Never leave that till to-morrow which you can do to-day.

I've often wondered what it is about proverbs and wise sayings that makes them so, well, wise. What is it that they posses that somehow makes us pause and take a long hard look at ourselves - and maybe even learn something new? Or remember something forgotten.

This got me to browsing some of the many collections of sayings and proverbs online in the hope that some underlying pattern might be made clear.

Seek and ye shall find...

And there is some strange phenomenon I've noticed. Many, although not all, wise sayings seem to have efficacy because they're so self evident, yet far from obvious.

Let's take:

Don't judge a book by its cover.

We can probably all recall times when we've come to snap judgements about something or someone and subsequently found ourselves to have judged too soon. Hence the resonance of the saying.

Yet it's also effective because it contradicts our natural impulse to make snap judgements. This impulse, in and of itself, is not bad. In fact, it's critically useful. Our minds are far from being rational and deliberative in every day operation - despite introspective egotistical intuitions to the contrary.

When we make a decision, for example, we don't necessarily follow an entirely conscious logical process. Instead, dozens of individual, and interlinked, cognitive mechanisms leap into action, rapidly digesting and processing information and spitting out a decision. This process happens quite transparently to our consciousness. In fact, our consciousness is often only aware of the decision by observing the results in action - yet the consciousness is uncannily gifted at retrospectively attributing its own agency in the decision, when it was really the manifold cognitive processes that did all the legwork.

This cognitive model of behaviour also explains why we tend to fall into what I call 'shortcut traps'. The cognitive mechanisms, including schemata, emotions and the like, are all like shortcuts - taking minimal input to yield a substantiative output without bothering with exhaustive processing or weighing up possibilities or contingencies. Yet they're prone to error, especially when dealing with something even slightly outside the norm.

Like meeting someone in a sharp suit and assuming they're a wealthy professional. Or meeting someone in a disheveled state and assuming they're homeless. Often these momentary assessments are correct. But there's every possibility they're not.

It's my guess that proverbs and wise sayings serve to remind us of the fallibility of our cognitive shortcuts and cause us to pause and reflect on their output from time to time.

That's not to say we should see wise sayings as presenting a skeptical challenge to our thought processes - that we should never judge people by appearance - but only that doing so is a useful shortcut, but one very prone to error.

And perhaps this can shed some light on the nature of wisdom itself.

Perhaps it's a feature of wisdom - as it's conventionally and trivially envisaged - that it's the ability to penetrate and see - or even behave - beyond the cognitive shortcuts and emotions that dominate our thought processes.

Then again, it might be wise to say I might be wrong. After all:

The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.


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