Living Wisely/Seeking Real Good

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Humans have long been fascinated by two fundamental questions: what is real? and what is good?[1]

Scientists traditionally examine evidence in their pursuit of reality; however their investigations may become narrowly focused and they are sometimes accused of abandoning human values and other concepts of the good.

Creative optimists including storytellers, artists, theologians, mystics, and dreamers often suspend reality to better imagine and convey a sense of good.

Narrow definitions of traditional disciplines often lead us to perceive a false dichotomy, encouraging us to choose between science and art, or to see science and art somehow opposed to each other.

This dichotomy can be easily resolved if we consider how each activity represents good and correspondence with reality independently. Consider the area plotted below where “correspondence with reality” is represented on the horizontal axis, and “worth” is represented on the vertical axis. Genocide and other grand challenges are real, but not good. Utopia describes good, but is not real.

Moving in the direction of real good.

It’s fun and instructive to place items on this plot. Moral Virtue seeks to be good, but may not be entirely real because it is abstract, and ideal. Performance virtues, such as intelligence and courage, occupy a large middle ground. They are abstractions and rare, so they are not entirely real. They may be used for good or evil, so they are not entirely good. Dreams also span a large region because they are not real, and range from idyllic visions to terrible nightmares. Myths are interesting because they seek to explain what is real,such as the daily appearance and disappearance of the sun, with unreal stories. Santa Claus and the tooth fairy are near neighbors of classical mythology. Money is only real as a social construct, and it can be used for a variety of purposes, some more good than others. A beautiful sunrise is rather real and quite good. Ice cream tastes really good, but can be fattening.

We must recognize that neither complete correspondence with reality nor absolute good can be achieved. It is best to consider pursuit of these elusive goals as an ongoing quest. The blue arrow indicates the direction of that quest, but not its end. Examining evidence, critical inquiry, and scientific investigations assess correspondence with reality. I offer a tentative description of good and welcome your participation in improving that characterization.

Please value correspondence with reality in your quest for the good.

Fortunately new approaches to learning recognize the importance of exploring both what is good and what is real. For example, the Coursera course on “How to Change the World” engages tens of thousands of students from around the world in exploring the real nature of social goods, poverty, climate change, global health care, and the role of education in social change. Other learning platforms,such as Wikiversity, invite students to explore the grand challenges, Face Facts, know how you know, and the study the nature of wisdom.

These freely available courses engage students in learning by exploring what is both real and good.

These new approaches to learning go beyond the obsolete false dichotomy that opposes science against the humanities or real against good or what is against what ought to be. New approaches also recognize that learning is at its best when students use robust dialogue to explore deeply, increase understanding, learn from each other, expand the scope of the exploration, and continue the quest. Learning happens when engaged students are thinking and solving real-world problems.

An integrated approach to learning is easily illustrated on the real / good coordinate grid, shown on the right.

Directing learning toward wisdom and real good.

Efforts to explore nature, seek knowledge for its own sake, or narrowly explore “what is” focus on the question “what is real” while remaining indifferent to the question of “what is good.”

Parallel efforts to explore the possibilities of good, perhaps while seeking salvation, seeking meaning, promoting a particular ideology, or speculating what ought to be, imagine “what is good” while deferring the question of “what is real”.

Certainly when seeking knowledge—discovering what is—we can also ask: how will we apply this for the good? When describing our concepts of good—what ought to be—we can also ask: how do we know if it is real?

This tilts the direction of our work toward the diagonal as we seek real good. Let’s call that wisdom.

Any type of learning opportunity can be assessed with the help of these coordinates, shown on the right.

Plot activities on this grid to display their relative goodness and realness.

Wise students and instructors collaborate, using the real / good coordinate system to understand where their work is heading. By embracing the two parallel imperatives: “do no harm” and “advance no falsehoods” they guide themselves into the real, good region; they work in the realm of the sage.

Perhaps “wisdom” is the best single word to describe this ongoing quest for real good.

Wisdom is an advanced state of personal development that relies on extraordinary knowledge. Wisdom is rooted in perspectives, interpretations, values, and courageous actions. Wisdom finds meaning and significance in information through understanding interrelationships and their implications. Wisdom is a profound understanding of our existence, the human situation, our possibilities, and especially our limitations. Wisdom is a way of interpreting knowledge by viewing it from a variety of illuminating perspectives and using human values and comprehensive priorities to make better sense of it. Wisdom applies this knowledge and takes creative and courageous action to solve problems, create opportunities, and increase the well-being of all.

How can we best apply this precious wisdom?

Perhaps our greatest duty as human beings is to tackle the grand challenges. The grand challenges are not only the greatest, most pervasive and persistent problems facing humanity but also represent the most promising opportunities. These are the problems that just won’t go away as long as we avoid them. Inadequate drinking water, poor sanitation, malnutrition, obesity, disease, substance abuse, inadequate healthcare, addictions, poverty, unemployment, oppression, injustice, crime,violence, war, and genocide continue to spread misery every day. These challenges must be overcome so we can all enjoy better well-being.

Modern learning opportunities help students apply their wisdom to integrate the real and the good into real good solutions to the grand challenges. Students are learning to focus on what matters.

Do we now dare to indulge in some speculation?

Will we always be hampered by a schism separating what is good from what is real? Must there be two distinct directions of inquiry? Is there no end to fussing with distinctions between the good and the real?

Unification of real and good.

At our ordinary level of understanding we perceive a distinction between efforts to discover “what is real” and efforts to understand “what is good”. But perhaps this is an illusion, a result of our occluded view of how the world is based on the limitations of our current understanding. Perhaps eventually we can “lift the veil” and “see beyond this illusion” and recognize that when we fully understand what is real, when we have removed all veils and errors, it can only be good.

Similarly, as we continue to attain a complete understanding of “good” it will necessarily have to be real, because we will have outgrown our fascination with unreal fantasies.

As a result, as our understanding increases both paths converge on an ultimate wisdom. Without a doubt, this is a place of great beauty.

Focus on what matters. Seek real, good solutions to the grand challenges. Strive for the great beauty revealed by ultimate wisdom.

If you are interested in learning more about what is real, consider taking the Wikiversity course Facing Facts. If you are interested in learning more about what is good, consider taking the Wikiversity course on Virtues.


  1. This essay first appeared as a blog post on bestthinking, with the title Unification. It has been adapted here with permission of the author. See: