Can Science Analyze Wisdom?
A sociologist finds that wise people age better.
But first, she has to know what wisdom is.
The ability to compare elderly people for signs of outward happiness or contentment falls within observational science. But can a scientist assess what is going on inside? Sometimes inside and outside states differ. “Monika Ardelt is a sociology professor who studies wisdom across the life course,” says a caption over a smiling picture of her. She has completed a study that announces on a University of Florida Press Release, “How wisdom, resilience and mastery work together to boost well-being in old age.” The study involved 994 seniors aged 51 to 99, average age 77, who completed a survey in California called Successful AGing Evaluation (SAGE).
Someone from the press office decorated the press release with a graphic of a puzzle against a starry background, with the image of someone below sitting in the lotus position meditating. This raises questions about the role of religion and reason in the attainment of wisdom, and what its content is. Whatever; Ardelt judges wisdom by external effects. It can help one to “reduce stress and enable a person to better handle late life adversity and aging-related losses.”
Understanding how wisdom, resiliency and mastery work together to improve a person’s subjective well-being later in life is important given common challenges of aging, from death of loved ones and close friends to impaired health and mobility, said Monika Ardelt, lead author and a sociology professor at the University of Florida. It is also important because traits that mark wisdom, resiliency and mastery can be taught.
And that raises the question of who will teach it. Whoever teaches these skills needs to understand what they are. How does Ardelt define wisdom, resiliency and mastery? The press release offers these definitions:
- Wisdom was assessed using “cognitive, reflective and compassionate dimensions — an interest in life’s deeper meaning and acceptance of life’s uncertainties; being able to perceive events from multiple perspectives; and having sympathetic love and compassion for others.”
- Resiliency was defined as “older adults’ perceived ability to bounce back after adversity and their sense of mastery or control over their environment, life and future.”
- Mastery is not defined separately in the article, but appears to be connected to resiliency, as shown above, as control over one’s environment, life and future.
An abstract of Ardelt’s paper in the German journal Praxis Klinische Verhaltensmedizin und Rehabilitation mentions a couple of other terms like equanimity and life satisfaction. These, however, are admittedly subjective as they fit into the covering term “subjective well being” (SWB).
Science usually tries to deal with objective measurements. Can a sociologist apply scientific standards to SWB? The results as stated in the press release reflect only tendencies, not cause-and-effect relationships.
The study found that wisdom in old age “tends to enhance resilience and a sense of mastery and to reduce perceptions of stress directly and indirectly through greater resilience and mastery.” Those who scored high in wisdom also tended to be more resilient and to have a stronger sense of mastery over their lives. And these three characteristics might reinforce each other, leading to greater wisdom, resilience and mastery as adverse events are encountered and overcome.
As could be predicted, wisdom is shown to be a good thing. “It is good to be wise,” Ardelt states at the end. “Old age is hard, but we can cultivate wisdom in people so they have the tools, along with resilience and mastery, to minimize stress and maintain a sense of well-being when crisis hits.”
But what are the units that can give scientific clarity to the study? Is there a formula? Do 3.52 ardelts of wisdom plus 92.4 freuds of resilience equal 1.0 masteries of aging? Does a higher mastery score correlate with better subjective well being? What about all the jolly nincompoops who are neither wise, resilient or in control? If they die laughing, don’t they score high on SWB?
The “study” looks like a jargonesque attempt to paint a scientific veneer on tacit knowledge possessed by most thinking people: that wisdom, resilience and mastery are good skills to aspire to. The source of that tacit knowledge is another question.
Consider the Source
Her biography page at the University of Florida describes Monika Ardelt as “a founding faculty member and member of the advisory committee of the University of Florida Center for Spirituality and Health.” Health can be measured, but what about spirituality? If Prof. Ardelt is an evolutionist—as surely must be the case for survival in a secular university—she would have to consider her spirituality to be a by-product of natural selection. Everything she says, therefore, means nothing. Her words and publications are strategies by her selfish genes to increase her fitness so that they can propagate themselves. Those strategies include making their human meat robots feel spiritual, intelligent and wise.
And so the social sciences continue to masquerade as science, when they are really false religions.
Spirituality as a scientific term is as vague as SWB. Contrast the approach to wisdom, resilience and mastery of a Hindu and a Christian. The Hindu would believe that wisdom comes from emptying one’s mind and meditating on the meaninglessness of life, attempting to become one with the cosmic nothingness. Any “resilience” or “mastery” of the self would come by striving to be oblivious to one’s suffering and the suffering of others. In practical terms, the Hindu spends life placating millions of gods and offering sacrifices to idols. To the Christian, however, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. A Christian finds wisdom in meditating on the truths in the Word of God, which have objective content and rational meaning. Resilience comes by trusting a personal Creator who not only created an incomprehensibly vast and purposeful universe, but who is kindly disposed toward His creatures, and proved it by dying for us and rising from the dead—a historically verifiable fact. Mastery comes from confidence that He works all things for the good of those who trust Him, so that even suffering and loss in this present world can be means of enriching their lives with more wisdom and ultimate joy in the eternal state. The practical outworking of the Christian worldview is ministering to the poor and needy and teaching others to turn from vain idols and from personal sin to begin to comprehend the riches in the mind of Christ, who promises those who believe in Him eternal inheritance free from suffering.
Undoubtedly Ms Ardelt is a sweet lady who means well, and we don’t mean any disparagement to her personally. But if you want the good fruits of “spirituality” and wisdom, don’t waste your time paying the salaries of godless professors at secular universities. Everything you need for well-being is already in the Bible. And it is objective, not subjective.
Proverbs 9:10 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
Psalm 111:10 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!
Romans 8:28 – And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
James 3:13-18 – Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.
I Peter 1:3-9 – Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.