On December 9, 2013, I celebrated my 80th birthday at a hilltop park overlooking Santa Barbara. Inviting everybody, on a pot-luck basis, I announced, somewhat facetiously, that this would enable me to assume the role of a “Wise Old Man of the Mountain.”
To my surprise, the City took this seriously, to the extent of issuing an ornate birthday greeting in the form of a certificate, signed by the mayor, characterizing me as
Wise Old Man of the Mountain
I jumped at the chance to add this to my other claims to fame – as the world’s only full-time professional epigrammatist, and as the highest-paid author (per word.) But I had to start wondering, just what does it mean to be “Wise”? Furthermore:
(1) How is wisdom calibrated? Why are there no “WQ” tests, as there are “I.Q.” tests for intelligence?
(2) Why does wisdom evidently have so little commercial value?
(3) How do you acquire wisdom? Surely, we’re not born with it. So, why are there no public-school wisdom courses?
(4) With regard to the legendary wise persons, just how wise were they, really? King Solomon’s reputation apparently derives from one anecdote about how he determined the rightful mother of a disputed baby. The wisdom of Socrates hinges on the story that, when told that the Oracle at Delphi had declared him to be the wisest man in Athens, he commented that “All I know is that I know nothing.”
As for all the great religious leaders, from Buddha and Jesus onward, their combined wisdom seems to conflate to homilies on being nice, decent, and kind.
But you are not going to let me get away with anything that simplistic. You’re expecting me, as a certified Wise Person, to offer you today some genuine wisdom of my own. So, ready or not, here it is:
In the spirit of my predecessors, I concur that our greatest problem is, how can we improve the way people behave toward one another and minimize all the misbehavior that seems to be so prevalent? We now know that neither outer nor inner space is the “Final Frontier,” but what truly deserves that designation is the strange organ inside our heads called the brain. Everything we are, and know, and do, resides within it. And fortunately, we have certain chemical and surgical tools that were not available until recently.
However, in order to make full use of this knowledge, what we need are two basic changes in our current approach. One is prioritizing scientific brain research, which deserves far more funding than we currently spend on armaments. The other is changing our legal and ethical standards with regard to experimentation on human beings.
You don’t have to tell me about the risks and dangers in what I’m proposing. Experimenting upon animals is tricky enough, what with some otherwise decent people being willing to commit arson, if not worse crimes, to protect what they consider the rights of non-human critters. But in terms of adult humans, we already have people volunteering for all kinds of hazardous duties, including police work, firefighting, and military service (not to mention those brave aid-workers who risk their lives in disaster zones of the world.)
And far more people would be willing to be experimented upon, if they and their families were paid enough, and if society honored them enough (as we now honor those in the armed forces).
So, what exactly am I proposing? First and foremost, we must minimize the restrictions that prevent our scientists from properly exploring the living human brain. And since each of us possesses a functioning specimen of this marvelous organ, one can envisage all kinds of scenarios in which the user might be willing to participate, at varying degrees of risk, in research projects specifically designed to determine how we can best control and improve human attitudes and behavior, particularly in those who are a danger to society. The best initial candidates might be people already in penal or medical institutions, or those known to be terminally ill. But let anyone volunteer who truly wants to benefit society.
Of course, there must be all kinds of safeguards, and the legislators and lawyers will face great challenges. But remember, the whole object of this proposal is to remove at least some of the current obstacles to brain research on living human subjects, with the special purpose of changing anti-social attitudes and behavior.
Here endeth today’s offering of wisdom.