The Way to Wisdom (July 2005)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 02:21

Saga Magazine

The Way to Wisdom

Dorothy Rowe

Calling ourselves homo sapiens, the intelligent people, is an act of extreme vanity. Certainly our language skills, our science and technology attest to our high intelligence, but our destruction of our planet does not. This destruction, the suffering we’ve inflicted on other species and on ourselves, and the general unhappiness and dissatisfaction which many people feel all result from a lack of understanding of ourselves so great that we should really call ourselves homo stupidus, the stupid people.

As a psychologist and writer all my work has always been concerned with explaining why we behave as we do. There are many people who have a good understanding of why we behave as we do, but even more people, many of whom would regard themselves as well-educated, find what I have to say incomprehensible. Some of these people don’t want to learn about themselves because they are frightened of what they might discover if they looked inside themselves, but others lack the skills needed to examine the motives and actions of people, themselves included.

Everyone can be a scientist. All you need are the skills of mathematics and scientific method. Everyone can create technology. All you need are the skills of mathematics and chemistry. (The technology of baking a cake requires some knowledge of maths and chemistry.) Everyone can be a psychologist. All you need are the skills of analysing the logic we all use when we think. (Regrettably, there are many university-qualified psychologists who lack this skill.)

The logic used in all sciences and mathematics is Aristotelian logic, the logic of the real world. In Aristotelian logic a thing cannot simultaneously be itself and not itself. A cannot be not-A. In the logic of our private thought A and not-A can exist simultaneously. You can know that, ‘The people I love are the people I hate.’ (These A and not-A people are usually your nearest and dearest.) In Aristotelian logic things can be said to be similar, as in ‘The shape of the moon is similar to that of a ball’, but in the logic of our thinking we can say that one thing is another thing, as in, ‘My grandchild is the sunshine of my life.’ We give many different meanings to everything we encounter, and these meanings are often metaphors.

However, whether you’re using Aristotelian logic in doing science or the logic of private thought, there’s one serious error you can make. It’s called a Category Error.

To make sense of the world we put things that are similar in some way in boxes called categories. We say, ‘All those things are apples and all those other things are rocks.’ In mathematics we are taught that different categories cannot be added together. You can’t add apples to rocks. Also, we are taught that we must be very careful not to put things in the wrong category. Don’t call a rock an apple or an apple a rock.

Yet this kind of error is very common in the way we think about ourselves, especially when we want to have everything and find that we have missed out on so much. ‘I don’t want to get old,’ we say. ‘I worked hard all my life and now all I’ve got is a lonely old age. It’s not fair.’ Here we are confusing two very distinct kinds of events, two distinct categories. I’ll call these Category 1 and Category 2.

Category 1 is those things which we could have but which are withheld from us by the way we choose to define ourselves and our world. Consider loneliness. The world is full of lonely people. Why don’t they all get together? Because they have defined what they do in terms of some rules which they have created, rules such as, ‘I don’t mix with people of a different class/ race/ religion/ nationality/ gender from me,’ or, ‘I’m not interested in people’, or, ‘I pride myself on keeping myself to myself’. Consider ‘It’s not fair’. Is there a law of nature which says that if you’re good you’ll get rewarded? There isn’t, but, if there were, it would fall into...

Category 2, those things which are the nature of human life. One of these things is that if you don’t die young you get old and then die. Another is that you can’t be in two different places at the same time. You can’t have a holiday abroad at the same time as being at home. You can’t go back in time and change the past, but you can change how you interpret the past because the past, like the future, is simply an idea. All we ever actually experience is a series of present moments. In a family argument it’s all very well to state, ‘I’ve said my piece and that’s the end of it,’ but in fact everything we do has many consequences, some good, some bad. We have no control over what these consequences will be.

Many people make themselves unhappy because they constantly complain about those aspects of life which fall into Category 2 and complacently insist that they cannot change those aspects of their life which fall into Category 1. If we want to lead at least reasonably contented lives we need always to distinguish carefully between Category 1 and Category 2 aspects of life. If we do this, we can then determine where we might usefully fight for our rights and our ambitions, and where it would be better to resign ourselves to life’s course. Making this distinction allows us to make more informed choices and decide what matters most to us. Distinguishing between the two categories allows us to live in the present enjoying what we have instead of living in the future and the past and being forever dissatisfied. If we all were able to do this then we would indeed be entitled to call ourselves homo sapiens, but this would be sapiens as the ancient Romans knew it. Sapiens for them meant wisdom.

Dorothy Rowe Wanting Everything: The Art of Happiness HarperCollins.

SAGA Magazine, July 2005