On Wisdom and Knowledge

“I was trying to explain the difference between wisdom and knowledge to Derek,” Mrs. Bowman said, “but I don’t think I really got through to him.”

“The difference is simple,” Mr. Magundi replied. “Knowledge is progressive, and wisdom is static. We improve in knowledge with every passing generation, and indeed with every passing day; but we have not improved in wisdom since the first man thought it might be a fine idea to eat that fruit after all. We pass our knowledge on to the next generation, by oral tradition or in writing. On the other hand, an individual can grow in wisdom, but for some paradoxical reason, no matter how desperately he tries to pass it on, no matter how many volumes he writes or fine speeches he makes, his wisdom dies with him, and the next generation must discover wisdom for itself.”

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On Styles of Thinking

“I don’t see how it makes a difference to the science,” Mrs. Bowman said.

“People use two kinds of thinking when they want to discover the truth,” said Mr. Magundi. “I call them rational thinking and personality thinking. Rational thinking asks, ‘How do I know?’ Personality thinking asks, ‘Whom do I trust?’

“We all use both kinds of thinking to some degree. When we need to make a quick life-or-death decision, well-placed trust is likely to preserve us when there’s no time to reason things out. But most people lean more in one direction or another. You’re a rational thinker; you look at your scientist’s methods and reasoning, and you see nothing wrong with it, so you can’t understand what relevance it has if he did something wrong in his personal life. But a personality thinker—and I believe personality thinkers are the more common type—is simply appalled that you would see things that way. If a scientist is a thief or an adulterer, then of course you have to reject his science, because you can’t trust him. I think it’s terribly damaging to judge science by personalities, but a personality thinker would just smirk at me and tell me that of course that’s what a man like me would think.”

On Truth

“So I showed it to him,” Brielle concluded, “but he just, like, started yelling at me.”

“Nothing is more infuriating than a demonstrable truth,” said Mr. Magundi. “You can be civil as long as the debate cannot be definitively settled. But when you’ve put your whole soul into maintaining a proposition, and the other side produces incontrovertible proof that you’re wrong, your only choice is either cheerful admission of defeat or blind impotent rage—and it doesn’t take a deep or subtle student of psychology to know which way most people will go. If, in an argument about politics or religion or anything else people really care about, one of the participants ends up dead, we are justified in supposing that the victim brought up a really good point, and the murderer was not able to think of an answer.”

On Diversity

“I get tired of hearing about ‘diversity,'” Mr. Bates said. “It’s time we admitted that, as Americans, we share certain core values, and if you don’t share those values you shouldn’t be here.”

Mr. Magundi disagreed. “Diversity is the key to a healthy democracy. No, I’ll state it more baldly: democracy is tyranny without diversity. When like-minded people gather in a group, the first thing they want to do is enforce conformity—which is very easy to do when most of the people think the same thoughts, and the outsiders are few and powerless. And it feels good to be one of that powerful majority—until the others find that one tiny point on which you differ from them, and kill you for it.

“No, the only way to secure freedom is to limit the natural tyranny of the mob, and the only effective way to do that is by dividing the mob. Our Constitution had the good fortune to be drafted when the different sections of the country not only were not of like mind, but in fact could barely agree on anything. Because the disagreements were irreconcilable, our Constitution is a mess, full of irrational compromises that no sane thinker would propose. Yet, for all its faults, it works in the main, and gives each of us a kind of personal freedom that most of the world still envies, whatever they may think of our military adventures. It continues to work mostly because many of our differences are still irreconcilable, and we all know that the only way to preserve our own freedom from the tyranny of those other people is to preserve freedom for everyone. Liberty is a delicate flower, and it does not grow well in a homogeneous society.

“If you asked me to prescribe an elixir for perpetual liberty, my prescription would be this: that if at any time the current population of the country shows signs of too much agreement on the really important things of life, a large influx of new immigrants should be brought in from some other part of the world to break up our shared core values.”

On Unreasonable Beliefs

“Well, I can’t prove it,” Mrs. Bowman said after Mr. Bates had grilled her for a bit, “but that’s what I believe.”

“If you don’t know why you believe it,” Mr. Bates answered, “then you’re just being unreasonable.”

Here Mr. Magundi stepped in. “All our most deeply and sincerely held beliefs are unreasonable, in the sense of being inaccessible to reason. There is nothing wrong or even regrettable in that: all ethics must begin with certain postulates that cannot be demonstrated. It’s wrong to kill an innocent man, you say. If I demand that you prove it, what will you tell me? You may be very clever; you may be able to prove conclusively that without such a principle the human race would certainly be extinct; and yet I could still ask how you knew that the extinction of the human race would be a bad thing. Nothing in science proves that the human race must continue. The most we can say is that we really, really want it to continue—which is an unreasonable belief, but not a bad one.”

On Razor Blades

“I don’t know why,” Brielle said. “I mean, he’s really smart, and he knows lots of interesting stuff, but I just can’t stand him.”

“To speak like a Greek philosopher,” Mr. Magundi remarked, “a dull razor blade cuts by virtue of its sharpness. It hurts, not because it’s blunt, but because it falls just short of being sharp enough. In the same way, a dull person—

“Now, why is everybody looking at me that way?”