Let’s for a second imagine two very different people, with two very different backgrounds, studying the same thing in their own unique ways. In this case, it’s the sea. The first is a university professor, someone who is an expert on oceanography; the second is an old-fashioned fisherman.
The professor went out into the world, conquered its many challenges, eventually finding himself at the most prestigious of universities, learning at the edge of our collective knowledge. The fisherman, however, did what he was expected: He graduated from high school — itself quite an achievement in his community — but then, he took over from his father, tending to the waters that surrounded them, just as his own father had taken over from his father before him.
Over the decades, these men studied exactly the same domain but from different vantage points, with slightly different purposes. The professor knew all of the forces governing the bodies of water on Earth, but he spent little time in the actual sea. The fisherman, naturally, spent all of his time in the sea, but he knew little of the fancy terminology.
Now, let’s ask an interesting question: Who out of these men has a deeper understanding of how the sea works — the professor or the fisherman?
It’s a tough question, and it’s also an ambiguous one. If your first urge is to ask your own question in response to clarify what is meant by “a deeper understanding,” I’d say that’s a good step. Context here matters. And yet, when in different forms this question is asked in philosophy (rationalism vs. empiricism) or in psychology (Do IQ tests measure something meaningful as it relates to the lived world?) or in terms of the utility of logic (abstractions vs. reality), many people settle for one side and have a hard time reconciling the two in a way that does both of them justice.
At its core, this question is really a question of knowledge: How do we gain knowledge about the world? Rationalism says that it comes from our thoughts (from language, reason, and mathematics), whereas empiricism says that it comes from our senses (from observations, habit-patterns, and intuitions), and once this distinction has been made, each school carves its path further away from the other, leading to futile arguments that ignore the possibility that maybe simple reduction isn’t the best way forward here.
My own starting point is slightly different. First, I suggest that a better way to look at this is to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom, and then, I also suggest that we move away from the rationalist-empiricist dichotomy. In Buddhism, for example, there is no dichotomy, because in many traditions, thought itself is considered to be a sense, just a more powerful one — in a way, a secondary one. Their starting point is consciousness, and from there, they see each of the capabilities of the human body — sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, and yes, thought — as a point of inquiry into the nature of reality.
It’s very clear that humans don’t experience all that consciousness has to offer. Snakes, for example, can see things in their field of consciousness that humans can’t. Similarly, dogs can smell things in their field of consciousness that humans can’t. This doesn’t mean that these sights and smells don’t exist in human environments; it just means that humans don’t have the evolutionary bodies that can tap into these different kinds of experiences. Hypothetically, if consciousness is an infinite dark field, then each sense can be thought of as a small bright light that illuminates one part of it to uncover reality. A dog’s or a snake’s field lights up different parts than that of a human’s field, but neither captures the whole thing.
The interesting thing about humans, however, is that we have this capacity for complex thinking, which allows us to create knowledge. Now, what is knowledge? Going with the current analogy, knowledge is the ability to reach beyond a single isolated light into the infinite field of consciousness. You might be able to refine and train your hearing and your sight to allow you to study more of reality, but there is still a limit to what you can hear and smell, which means that the reach of the five senses is limited. The reach of the sixth sense, the secondary sense — thought — allows us to use language and mathematics to create abstractions that can predict what will happen in a galaxy a million light-years away from here. In a way, it allows us to create additional senses to explore consciousness and the Universe with. That said, and this is why its a secondary sense, none of this is a matter of direct experience, and that brings with it occasional problems.
Thought and knowledge impose abstractions onto reality, and with the right thought and the right knowledge, they allow us to map this reality fairly well. That said, no matter how good the map is, it’s still a map and not the actual thing. Observations and intuitions through the other five senses allow us to directly experience this reality. There is no map. It’s just a bare, naked experience that connects to the brain. Now, it’s well-known that these other five senses can lead us astray (through cognitive biases or poor emotional regulation), but if adequately trained (as contemplative traditions like Buddhism aim to do), then they are a far stronger reflection of a particular lived environment than thought.
It’s no coincidence that advanced meditators, who have refined their senses to a higher degree than people less acquainted with the path, are said to possess a higher degree of wisdom, and that’s because their experience of reality is truer, less clouded. They have learned to directly interact with their surroundings in a way that harmonizes their being with that of the being around them. In this way, we can say that thinking, the secondary sense, is what allows us to build knowledge (which is both collective — creating science — and individual — learning science), and in this way, knowledge errs towards rationalism. But the other five senses allow us to create wisdom, which is only ever individual, and it errs towards empiricism. Reducing one to the other ignores the fact that they are interactive in a way that perhaps we don’t have the vocabulary to fully map.
In this sense, if we take it back to the professor and the fisherman, we can say that the professor has knowledge about the sea, whereas the fisherman is wise in regards to how to act in harmony with the sea. This distinction is important because one references a secondary sense (thought) and its ability to explain things far beyond the reaches of the other senses (although only in terms of hypotheticals because it hasn’t experienced them) and the other references the five senses that can be refined to understand things well enough to give us information about how to actually act in the world in front of us.
If the professor suddenly went out into the sea with only his knowledge and without any experience, he may have a slightly easier time interacting with the sea than, say, someone who is completely blank, but there is no way that he would have the intuition that adequately tells him how to survive a storm or how to respond to the currents in the right way. Conversely, the fisherman may be able to navigate all of the harshness that this world throws at him, but he can’t tell you why in a way that makes universal sense.
In the field of psychology, the concept of IQ, which is supposed to roughly measure general intelligence (mostly hereditary) has a robust history of research behind it. In fact, it’s one of the most concretely tested measures in the field and the correlations it shows are comparatively sturdy. Yet, there is a lot of controversy about whether or not it really plays as big of a role in the real world as is espoused by some people. Naturally, people have an incentive to both downplay its role (“It’s not fair that something so out of our control should dictate so much of what we get out of life”) and to upstage its role (It’s really hard to accurately measure these things, and some people have an undue confidence in establishing correlations as if they suggest something they actually don’t). The question, then, is: How much does IQ matter as it relates to things like success in the real world?
In the framework I have laid out, IQ would roughly capture abstract thinking ability, or the capacity to create and accumulate knowledge. Well, does knowledge help in navigating the real world? Or better yet, is the professor more equipped to deal with the harshness of the sea than the average person? And the answer is clearly yes. That said, a fisherman doesn’t need a high IQ to dominate in his area of expertise if he has spent time accumulating wisdom in that particular domain and correcting for errors over time.
Wisdom can be both contextual (being a great fisherman or being a great soccer player or being a great copywriter) or it can be general (understanding and dealing with life in a healthy way as, say, a monk would be better equipped to do), and both of these kinds of wisdom can be helped with knowledge but knowledge isn’t a requirement for them to manifest if the empirical capacity of the senses in the person embodying them has been developed to a high enough level of competence, and an IQ test has nothing useful to say about that. All it does is tell you that you have the inborn capacity to accumulate and create knowledge, which is clearly important, but not important enough, because the real world goes one step beyond theory, and that is, it requires action — the ability to interact with and adapt to a changing reality, which is an entirely different ball-game.
When a fisherman is out in the sea, he moves with the waves, and he dances with the life-forms beneath him, without thought, without abstractions. He experiences subtle vibrations of physical matter on his body, and his brain then contextualizes these vibrations based on prior experience, which has been earned by prior mistakes and lessons, and it tells him exactly what to do without actually telling him anything at all. There is no way to entirely replicate the effect of this process without actually having lived the life he has lived in relation to the sea — no knowledge, no IQ test, can save him without this background of having walked the actual path.
The professor may do important work in the field of oceanography, and this work may even tell us something new and important about our relationship to nature, enhancing our collective knowledge in such a way as to push us towards a brigher future, but this domain is different from the domain of lived experience, different from the subtleties of reality.
This way of thinking has a lot of benefits, but one of the clearer ones, to me, is that it reaffirms the truth of the old cliche that everybody can teach you something. As a naturally curious person — at times, an arrogant person — someone who at a young age had managed to learn a lot, and then learned to use that knowledge to disarm people with word-games, I have always been quick to think that I know more than I do — that if I can intellectually understand the logic of something, I get it; that I don’t always need to hear someone out, nor do I need to respect the wisdom of their experience and what that has taught them.
Now, time is a generous teacher, and while I’m still not completely beyond this kind of thinking, I’m getting better at it — I’m more eager to pause, to listen, to give people space when they appear to be grasping something they feel is of substance even if they don’t have the language to fully communicate that substance in a way that naturally resonates with me.
It’s easy to take one side of the argument over the other, which we usually do based on our own unique biases and our own unique predispositions, but the truth is that, in actuality, things are messy, and people are complex, and the world we interact with is even more complex. Many different things can be true at the same time, depending on the interactions that are in play, depending on the predominant context. The point is never to declare victory for rationalism or empiricism, or for IQ or no-IQ, but it’s to honestly assess and see what works — why, how, and when.