In watching the "Lewis" TV detective drama last night ("Lewis" is the follow on series from "Inspector Morse") I was struck by the misquoting of a T.S. Eliot poem. The sergeant (who is the "intellectual one" of the pair of central characters) states "Where is the wisdom we have lost in information". On being asked what that was from he said "T.S. Eliot" as I knew he would. However I also knew that the quote was slightly incorrect. Two lines have been telescoped into one by the scriptwriter. The correct quote is:
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
I first encountered the second line during the literature review study for my PhD in Computer Science. The quote was placed at the beginning of someone else's thesis that I included in the review. The thesis in question was about techniques for visualising complex multi-dimensional datasets in order to spot patterns among a heap of numbers. Thus it was appropriate to have the quote, because the techniques the author had developed enabled the extraction of knowledge from what would otherwise be a load of incomprehensible information that could overload us.
Modern technology has made it possible to get knowledge from a huge amount of information. It helped me in finding the source of this poem. I knew it was by T.S. Eliot, but couldn't remember which poem it was. I attempted to speed-read my yellowing copy of T.S. Eliot's collected poems but didn't find it. Then I turned to a search engine on the internet and typed in the quote. In a fraction of a second I had a number of hits, and about the first hit revealed the knowledge I was looking for, that it was a chorus from "The Rock", and I was then able to find it in my book. It is pretty amazing that out of the monumental quantities of information on the Internet, my simple search on Google could give me the piece of knowledge I was looking for.
However, the answer to Eliot's first question: where is the WISDOM we have lost in knowledge, is far less straightforward. If knowledge is a higher representation of information (which in computer terms is just a string of zeros and ones, but in Eliot's terms would probably just be a set of disconnected facts), then wisdom is perhaps higher representation of knowledge.
I have been thinking that in using "Knowledge" here, perhaps Eliot is referring to the Tree of Knowledge in the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall, in the early chapters of the Bible.
This knowledge represented a loss of innocence for the two characters; they realise they are naked - they feel shame. And so, too for us, knowledge isn't always helpful, but can be put to destructive use. Once the atomic bomb was developed, we had enough knowledge to destroy the planet. Even without that, we may destroy things by pollution, causing catastrophic climate change, or possibly we shall run out of natural resources such as fossil fuels before alternatives can be found, causing widespread instability, famine and wars. All of this comes about because our immense scientific knowledge allows us to exploit the earth in ways which it cannot in the long term sustain.
So how does one rediscover the wisdom that has been lost in knowledge? It is not an easy question to answer. The only one I can come up with is that we have to listen to our consciences. C.S. Lewis writes in "Mere Christianity" of the "Moral Law", the innate sense of right and wrong that we all have built in instinctively. We all know what is fair and right, and that somehow the right thing to do is to act altruistically. Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project, and now head of the National Institutes of Health, has also written about the Moral Law in describing his own conversion from atheism to Christianity in his book The Language of God: A scientist presents evidence for belief
This moral law is the voice of our conscience, and C.S. Lewis says it is a gift from God, and for Francis Collins it was the realisation of this Law, to which we are all subject, and which nonetheless we wantonly and knowingly disobey much of the time, that was the key factor in the crumbling of his own atheism and acceptance (initially unwillingly) of Christianity.
We should always try and listen to this voice of conscience, even if what it tells us to do makes us unpopular or unfashionable, or even if it contradicts whatever dogma (religious or political) that we happen to follow. Because the true voice of your conscience (not necessarily the one you want to hear, but the one that you know in your heart is right) is the true voice of God. St. Paul writes of this (Romans 2:14) in a wonderful parenthetical comment, a true piece of wisdom buried within all the other knowledge and information presented in his letter:
(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, because they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)