The Center for Inquiry is committed to the use of science, reason, and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor. But is this enough?
There is an abundance of experts in modern society in virtually all fields of human endeavor, and these include hundreds, no doubt thousands, of disciplines and fields—from algebra and astronomy to botany and biology, from economics and ergonomics to physics and sociology. Each of these specialists is no doubt competent in his or her own field. Many of them use scientific methods—to understand the sex life of a bee, to correlate interest rates and economic activity, or to study solar energy and carry out space flights. Moreover, many people use rational processes of thought in any number of practical areas: law and education, real estate and politics, playing chess and building bridges, buying stocks and automobiles. In order to keep abreast of their fields, they must be willing to engage freely in investigations and to keep an open mind.
Unfortunately, given the complexity of knowledge, a person can be a virtuoso in one field but be totally incompetent in others. Authority in a particular subject does not necessarily qualify that person outside of it. Often otherwise intelligent individuals may be illiterate about the larger questions of life, or may fall prey to pseudoscience, religious mythology, or naïve political ideologies. They may abandon all standards of common sense. Accordingly, there is another ingredient that defines a truly educated mind, and I submit that the best word to describe this is the classical term wisdom.
We may say that a person possesses wisdom, in at least two senses: the first is a general comprehension of the basic principles and relationships of knowledge at any one time in history. This generally depends on scientific and philosophical wisdom. E.O. Wilson uses the term consilience to refer to the integration of concepts and theories across fields, yielding a kind of cosmic perspective. Wisdom in this sense depends upon education and some general degree of understanding of the main fields of human knowledge.
There is a second sense of wisdom, however, and this refers to practical wisdom or good judgment, the ability to ferret out and evaluate moral positions and to decide what is appropriate in ethical behavior. Practical wisdom requires the skills of critical thinking and the capability of making wise choices.
I have used the term eupraxsophy—good practical wisdom—to describe the capacity for framing effective practical judgments and engaging in reflective thinking.1 This would take into account human emotions and desires in reaching decisions. Since it deals with human conduct, wisdom needs to be fused with passion and compassion, for its goal is to arouse conviction and commitment upon which we can act.
With this issue of Free Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism adopts a new approach. We wish to cultivate practical wisdom, and we use the pages of this magazine to help achieve this important goal.
Mr. S. Morgan Barber of California has emphasized the need to develop “Courts of Wisdom,” where the well-informed citizen can evaluate alternatives and reach considered judgments about basic moral concerns. It is essential, says Mr. Barber, that we look at all sides of a question before we reach a decision. He has suggested that we actually set up and convene informal Courts of Wisdom to debate the issues; it has also been suggested that we have public discussions upon moral questions at our various Centers and/or secular humanist groups throughout the world.
Wisdom is often said to come with experience, and that is the product of a long life. Yet we often find the capacity for practical wisdom among young people, some of whom seem to have a natural inclination to make the right choices. In any case, we think it essential that each person cultivate critical thinking in life. One should not rely simply upon authoritarian dictates, tradition, dogma, or bias, but rather have an open mind about moral questions and encourage others to think for themselves as well.
We begin this approach by examining a basic moral question before the public today. Should society permit an adult who is suffering a terminal illness to end his or her own life? May that person call upon others, particularly members of the medical community, to assist in that termination? This is a burning issue in our society. The editors of this magazine happen to be in favor of assisted suicide and the right to die—under carefully regulated conditions. Nonetheless, we wish to present both sides of the question. Thus we have invited four persons, two in favor of assisted suicide and two who oppose it, to explain their positions. We ask you, the reader, as part of the public Court of Wisdom, to draw upon your own reflective intelligence and judge for yourself. In the last analysis, a democratic society must depend upon wise citizens to determine social and political policies.
1. Paul Kurtz, Living without Religion: Eupraxsophy (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 1994).
Paul Kurtz, founder of the Council for Secular Humanism, is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.