Friday, September 16, 2011

The Matters of Good and Wisdom

This post is inspired by the point James C. made in a comment on the previous post:

"...a WIS bonus would not necessarily be consistent with some of the darker or more absurd aspects of religion.  How would a parishioner's higher wisdom nudge them to build a cairn on a hill to call it a mountain or to march on Jerusalem or bomb airplanes? I think any meaningful and game-able rules for religion must recognize that it's not all about enlightenment and transcendence."

I'm not dead certain of James' position here, but I'm guessing there is a certain subtext - that is, that there is no real wisdom in building a cairn on a hill, as occurred in The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain (I got the title wrong yesterday), but that such an action is more of an emotional response to an apparently silly premise.  The minister in the film appealed to the emotions of the congregation to rally them, and the congregation responded emotionally ... not with great gobs of 'wisdom.'

I beg to differ with James ... not with regards to the film, but with regards to the definition of wisdom as generally understood in this post-liberalism world.  I quote this from wikipedia:

"Wisdom is a deep understanding and realization of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to choose or act or inspire to consistently produce the optimum results with a minimum of time, energy or thought."  [emphasis added by me]

I rush to argue that this has not always been the perception of wisdom, and that it really ought not to be the perception of wisdom in a world ruled by magic and existing gods.  'Optimum' is a veritable peasant's stew with regards to what could be considered good or not where it comes to the intervention of divine beings, and the best way to address that intervention.

To elaborate, consider the juxtaposition between Presbyterians of Scotland and the worshippers of Yog-Sothoth of the Cthulhu mythos.  The Presbyterians believe without question that the purpose of life is to work hard, make something of yourself, be a contribution to the general welfare and have a subdued and reverent attitude towards the divine.  This in spite of the inevitable end of the world, in which case the good shall be selected from the herd and granted everlasting life.

Compare this with the worshippers of Yog-Sothoth, who also believe in the inevitable end of the world, but with the understanding that the best that can be hoped for is that the true believers will be blessed by being killed quickly, as opposed to the rest of us who will take a long time to die.  As such, the fatalists of Yog-Sothoth perceive there is nothing to be done about this world ... it is all wasted effort.

From the standpoint of a liberal man living in the present century, I find humour in both belief-systems ... though of course I am expected to nod sagely at the one and laugh openly at the other.  That is because there are several million who accept the former, which also happens to encourage them to become rich and powerful, and there are no visible persons who accept the latter ... which in any case would be expected to drop in social status.  This, the Presbyterians say, proves the worth of their religion ... but of course we'll see what they say when they're being played with by a shoggoth while dripping pus from the massive boils covering their bodies.

So what exactly is the definition of wisdom here?  Which is the optimum course?

For that I must return to the Latin word, sapientia, which is generally defined as 'wisdom' or 'knowledge' but really, in context, is better understood as "to be made aware."  The word is the root of 'Sapient,' which apart from being the name of an Oregon hip pop artist more or less describes a creature who has the intelligence to BE aware.

There is a more accurate relationship between the word 'wise' and the word 'sapient' than there is with the modern definition that breaks down to 'right thinking.'  The latter influence upon wisdom, as a question of recognizing the difference between right and wrong, is a liberal-influenced point of view ... it's another modification brought about by the change in thought I described in a post recently.  To the Medieval or Renaissance individual, the difference between right and wrong was what the religious leader said it was, not something you obtained from your own deliberation on the matter.  While there were individuals in the world who were deliberating privately, men like Abelard or Occam or Galileo, the ordinary congregational occupant of a church could not be said to share their company.  The church-goer was thus clear of liberal pushes-and-pulls, and thus it could be said of their awareness, or their sapience, or their wisdom, that what the church leader said was a wise course of action WAS a wise course of action.  Ipso facto, and with no room for argument.

Moreover, in taking up the title of this post, this position on the matter of religion and right and wrong obliterates entirely the structure of the alignment system, which is based after all upon liberal ideas of 'good' and 'evil.'  How many times has it been said that Adolf Hitler would fit perfectly in the position of lawful evil upon the table?  And if I were to point out that the people of Germany were very much taken with Hitler during his reign, and considered him very GOOD, how quickly would others rush to point out that the people of Germany were deluded and therefore completely in the wrong with regards to right behavior?  Very quickly, I should think.  In reality, however, perceptions of who are deluded and who are truly good is a matter of who happens to be in power today ... and is just as equally a question of who in particular you ask.

The correct definition of pre-liberal 'good' and pre-liberal 'evil' is the difference between Us and Them.  We are good.  They are not.  We are aware of the true nature of the universe.  They are not.  And if our spiritual leader, the minister in our church, believes that a cairn must be built upon the heights of hill in order to improve the quality of the community, then build a cairn we shall!  For the minister has made us AWARE of right behavior, and now we shall march off and make right the world the way only sapient, wise beings can.

I can't be certain if James argued for or against this point.  It seemed the latter, but perhaps he hadn't considered the whole picture.  In either case, the point here is that wisdom is a measure of the awareness an individual has of the 'truth' as revealed to him or her by the Holy Word ... whatever the religion that individual may be inclined to accept ... and not any silly conception of balancing the pros and cons of a situation.  This is what makes it SO hard to argue with people who have religion - they do not argue on a playing field most liberal-educated persons would understand.  And it makes it perfectly clear why 'wisdom' is the perfect stat for the cleric, and not for some other invented class like 'scientist' or 'free-thinker,' neither of whom truly exist even as late as the Renaissance world.

To end this off, remarking on the last sentence above, consider the six meditations of Descartes, written just before 1650, the time my world takes place.  Consider that the man made an amazing leap forward with a comprehension of his senses that continues to astound young philosophers today.  But consider also that in the same six meditations, Descartes is also guilty of the worst kind of cognitive dissonance, in that he must argue for God's existence, because without question in Descartes' mind God must exist.  The argument Descartes makes would ensure his failure in any modern university philosophy course, but that doesn't matter.  Descartes is a product of his time, and serves as a reminder to all those who preach the wonder of the great minds of the pre-modern/pre-industrial age; from Copernicus to Newton, they all believed in God.  Unquestionably.


James C. said...

I believe you've got the right of my view on this Alexis. I think we also actually may agree on the over-arching principles here... namely that the role of "the mass" would be to inspire a congregation to some action and the general state of the medieval mind.

Where we part company is in how this relates to Wisdom, as you've pointed out above. Here I'm fully a victim of liberalism, I suppose, but in attempting to overcome that I'm still a bit lost on how you define Wisdom. it strikes me as counter-intuitive. More specifically, how would a temporarily higher wisdom contribute to a priest influencing/ inspiring a congregation to do something the liberal mind would see as dangerous, destructive or absurd in the service of "Good/ Us"? Would all characters in your world of a high wisdom be necessarily religious? Conversely?

If I accept your premise about Wisdom being how aware one is to a the desires of the subjective "Divine Us" (and I don't) how then would a higher wisdom contribute in game terms to the building of cairns, the bombing of planes, etc... are intelligence and wisdon necessarily at odds in your world? Given this, would Descartes have a high WIS and INT? Would an atheist, should such a person exist in the 16th century, have a low wisdom?

Alexis said...

All good questions.

Counter-Intuitive: "And what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?" - Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ Superstar. It is only feels irrational because it IS irrational from the point of view of someone who has been trained to look at the question from all sides.

I am not certain that a higher wisdom is the right effect...but I would guess it would be defined in a greater sense of us vs. them as made clear by the religious leader: if you've been to a really orthodox church, you should have a clear idea of what I mean. The argument doesn't have to make sense - once you define wisdom as "awareness" and not "certainty" - because there can never be certainty, only faith - than your liberal sensibilities can start to fall away.

Things done in the name of the church are only 'dangerous' to others. If we murder and destroy, it is RIGHT and not wrong; it is again your liberal sensibilities that tell you murder is wrong. Most of history accorded wrongness to murder if you murdered an Us. Murdering a Them was encouraged. Murdering THEM was 'good' by definition.

Yes, without question, in a world where gods actually existed, a higher wisdom would equate to a very faithful acceptance in the god's purposes. Torquemada would have had a very high wisdom. And yes, conversely, in a world where gods actually existed, an athiest would be a congenital idiot, wouldn't he? Keeping in mind, for most of history, this was understood to be unquestionably true.

In game terms, since the god tends to leave clerics 'on their own' so to speak, nudging them now and then if the clerics aren't acting in accordance with the god's wishes, then the value of building a cairn, slaughtering 'bad people,' etc., is pretty much left in your hands. You are there to interpret, as a cleric, what the god's wishes are, made slightly easier by the fact that gods tend not to really care if there are no large effects in your actions. My world having a population above 200 million, it is hard for you to have a large effect. To guide you, there are the books and myths and ideas that exist in the actual world, and your interpretations of those are thus measured against my interpretations of those ... like any other player/DM interaction. It is your world to play in. Your cleric should have the ability to sway believers in directions your cleric thinks are right. And because you are a cleric, you are (again by definition) right. This is why I constantly point out that the cleric is really a very dangerous character class. You're the one person in the party that NPC's like upon sight ... as long as the NPC's don't belong to some other religion.

And yes, Descartes would have had a high intelligence and wisdom. And they would have been at odds with each other. This is quite evident from the meditations.

James C. said...

It provokes thought(if not wisdom) as the best posts here often do. I'll certainly be considering Wisdom more closely than in the past. Both as a player in your game and the DM of mine.

In my game, Wisdom does account for an awareness to reality. More specifically, how perceptive a character will be. How well a character may hear a noise or see at a distance or feel a change in air temperature or the light brush of a slight wind are all determined in some part by Wisdom when I run the game. I have never considered success at any of these actions particularly holy. If I were to come around to your side of thinking it would change aspects of my game somewhat.

Alexis said...

I have also used wisdom as perception or peripheral detection. But why else would you notice that than because your god told you to? As in, "Thank god I saw that thing before it saw me!"

James C. said...

Ahhh! As I put it to paper, so to speak, I knew what your response would be. So the atheist is not simply myopic, but nearly or wholly blind!

Oddbit said...

Wonderful to see your definition of a core statistic. Makes me wonder what your definitions of the others are. The borders of their domain as it were and if they conflict with other opinions.

Eric said...

So how does this all work from the gods' end? Specifically, the Reformation has created many new Christian churches. Are they all actually worshipping the one same god, or are they each worshipping a different god? If the former, what about the various Jewish sects- is it all JHWH all the way down for them too?

"in a world where gods actually existed, an athiest would be a congenital idiot"

I think you'd end up with more syncretists- "clearly a lot of gods exist, I'll just try to stay on all their good sides and not piss any of them off too much" and a very few people going "there must be something behind all this, if there are so many gods whose priests all furiously profess that this is the One True Faith..."

Alexis said...


A good DM knows there are some things that should never be truly explained to the players; some conditions of the game that are for only the DM to know.

This is one of them.

Arduin said...

Kudos on this post, Wisdom had always been a stat that perplexed myself, being one of those things I was inclined to (appropriately now) take on faith.

In other news, nice to notice the link to XKCD here now. Always a gas.

Brady said...

Oh come on! I just made a post about the exact same thing!

(Of course, I didn't go through all the philosophy that you went over. I just suggested changing the name.)

Roger the GS said...

In a world where god(s) exist, it makes sense that Wisdom gives the ability to perceive, hence call upon, their influence and servitors - fitting also for Wisdom as perception in general.

Satchmo said...


Than what does intelligence cover?

I know, I know, this is an extremely old question, but if Alexis can define wisdom, perhaps he will enlighten us with his definition of intelligence.

If wisdom is the statistic that allows one to perceive the Gods (and also the world they created) as they actually are, is intelligence the ability to comprehend this information?

You can see what a shoggoth is by a perception (governed by wisdom) roll- a large proto-plasmic being seemingly made out of spheres, tentacles and eyes. You can understand what a shoggoth is by making a history (governed by intelligence) roll- the slave builders of an ancient empire of elder things millions of years old by the time humanity took its first steps.

However, by the time you've comprehended what the ghastly thing is, you probably have to make another roll, one for sanity, which isn't good for your wisdom or your intelligence.

Eric said...

Alexis: Oh, certainly, I didn't expect a straight answer to that question... but it remains something that characters might be interested in. If a high-level cleric decides/is inspired to start a new branch of the Protestant "heresy" all by himself, does he receive the same complement of spells as before? When he casts Commune, does he contact the same angels (or angels claiming to represent the same YHWH?)

I imagine the Reformation wouldn't have gotten any traction if only Catholic priests could still cast magic....

Oddbit said...

"Brady said...

Oh come on! I just made a post about the exact same thing!

(Of course, I didn't go through all the philosophy that you went over. I just suggested changing the name.)"

I beat you by two hours ;)