Thoughts on Wisdom and Collective Intelligence

This post was written by Tom Atlee and published originally in the previous incarnation of this blog.

One of the most intriguing aspects of collective intelligence is its relative independence from individual intelligence. It is clear to most students of the field that a group of intelligent people will not necessarily manifest group intelligence. Nor will a coalition of intelligent groups necessarily add up to an intelligent coalition. Nor will making all organizations intelligent, by itself, produce a collectively intelligent society. The intelligence of the parts/individuals varies independently with the intelligence of the whole/collective.

Usually the difference is described in terms of cooperation. If the individuals cooperate, they can generate collective intelligence. Often the importance of collective resources or structures, like various forms of group memory (databases), are noted. These, and other analyses, are quite valid.

I sense something underlying them all, though. That is the presence of “the whole” in the life and functioning of “the parts.” For example:

  • If workers in an organization share a common vision and/or an understanding of the functioning of the entire organization, they tend to self-organize in more collectively intelligent ways.
  • People who collaborate are doing so either because they believe in their shared work (the larger whole that embraces them all) or because there is a collaborative group ethic which lives in or among them strongly enough to structure their interactions.
  • In decision-making bodies, having diverse information from all stakeholders which paints a more complex big-picture reality than any member came in with, and/or having a process that can help them deal with their diverse perspectives creatively so that they “encounter more of the whole” creatively, facilitates the emergence of collective intelligence.
  • People who are collectively attuned to more inclusive, less fragmented realities — including Quakers and certain practitioners of ego-transcendence — tend to be able to more readily find high-quality common ground and shared energy, often in ways that feel more like the Whole is working THROUGH them or AS them.

For many years, I’ve felt that the essence of wisdom is wholeness. Wisdom, in all its forms, helps us deal creatively with more of the whole of life, of situations, of the people who sit across from us — engaging more of their complexity, nuance, aliveness and fullness. It recently occurred to me that wisdom may be a concept within which to collect all the different factors that enable individual intelligence to manifest as collective intelligence. If wisdom is present at the individual level, or in the environment where the individuals are relating to each other, then it tends to expand their individuality into the “higher” (collective) levels where all those individualities can then manifest collectively as positive, intelligently coherent functioning.

This may be too abstract to be useful to others, but I expect to be exploring it further for my own purposes in the future. For what it’s worth, here are some notes that summarize this thesis….

1. For my purposes in these notes, I propose that wisdom characterizes
any factor [a]
that facilitates greater positive engagement [b]
with more of the whole [c]

a. Specifically, any factor that has the potential to influence our interface with the world — such as a worldview; a piece of insight, information, knowledge, understanding or advice (or source of these, such as a person, book, article, experience, database or website); a way of thinking, feeling or behaving; a dimension of our character; a protocol, ritual or habit; a cultural expectation, assumption or narrative; a group or organizational process; a social or political institution; a law or policy; a physical structure or design; and so on. Any of these can shape our engagement with the world in holistic ways and thus be wise.

b. “Engagement” here can be active or passive. It includes perceiving, reflecting on and understanding, as well as being with, responding to, influencing and changing reality, as well as being influenced or changed by it. Engagement here implies interbeing and interactivity.

c. The “whole” here refers to the deeper, fuller, more comprehensive reality of something — a person, a group or community, a situation, an idea, the world, or anything else.

In other words, a viewpoint, a person, a book, a policy, etc., can be called wise if it helps us engage better with the full reality we face than most other approaches, especially “foolish” ones which focus our attention and awareness on only very small (often self-centered) pieces of reality.

2. The presence of individual intelligence [a]
will facilitate collective intelligence in the group [b]
to the extent that wisdom is present [c].
a. For my purposes here, an “individual” is any single entity at any holonic level, as: an individual person, an individual organization, an individual country, etc.

b. “Group” is used here to refer to any more inclusive holon, i.e., one that is made up of “individuals” (as defined above). In these notes, the term “group” may be a community, a network, a federation, a society, etc. — either of individual people or of individual groups, organizations, etc. The term “group” here could refer to both a corporation made up of individual employees and to a society made up of individual citizens and organizations.

c. Wisdom can be present in a number of ways and reside in different sources. Specifically, we may find wisdom (that which leads us towards greater engagement with the whole)

  • existing within a given individual
  • existing within a given group
  • embedded in a group’s interactions and collective behaviors
  • manifested in the group’s internal guiding structures [d]
  • operating through trans-group factors that are part of the group’s context — e.g., laws and regulations, energy fields, situational realities, power-holders, and other entities or forces that shape group behavior

d. “Guiding structures” includes such things as the group’s INTERNAL decision-making processes, cultural norms, physical infrastructure, reward systems, group narratives, etc.

So intelligence can (and does!) exist AT a given holonic level without significant wisdom. But wisdom is needed AT THAT LEVEL for that intelligence to manifest as collective intelligence at higher holonic (i.e., collective) levels. Wisdom — the force behind increasing wholeness — allows intelligences existing at lower holonic levels to operate and integrate at higher holonic levels.

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6 Responses to Thoughts on Wisdom and Collective Intelligence

  1. Reminds me Varela’s comment that a system that requires healing connects to more of itself.
    I really like the connection between individual intellegence and wisdom. So a question then becomes what sort of strategies can we use to invite individual intellegence forth in a context of wisdom that connects it that facilitates positive engagement with the whole. Seems like there is a whole catalogue of indiovidual and group practices that can do this (I naturally think of Open Space) but I’m interested in how this kind of thing bootstraps itself into existence.


  2. soulsoup says:

    Wisdom and Collective Intelligence

    Thoughts on Wisdom and Collective Intelligence – a thought provoking post by George Por. To Quote – One of the most intriguing aspects of collective intelligence is its relative independence from individual intelligence. It is clear to most students of…


  3. Bengt says:

    A tip is to read about Gödel and his work about all systems incompleteness. He sort of proved that there is no system that couldnt be enlarged. No system is therefore complete.
    I would say that there is nothing that is constant but change…this Sun Tsu pointed out about war..and it applies to life in general too.



    Blog of Collective Intelligence: Thoughts on Wisdom and Collective Intelligence…


  5. Stan Skrzeszewski says:

    Although I like the idea that “the essence of wisdom is wholeness”, I find that it is not that helpful in providing a meaningful definition. Wholeness is unfortunately hard to define. As a result the author has to fall back on a long list of ‘factors’ that may influence our interface with the world. It seems that no matter how far we pursue this train of thought it becomes circular, with the definition having to expand to an unlimited number of potential ‘factors’.
    My own efforts to define wisdom have lead to a definition of wisdom as being knowledge tempered with experience. In other words, wisdom about by the passing of time and personal history which adds an experiential component to knowledge. I am not sure that this is any more enlightening, although I feel that any attempt to deal with collective intelligence has to deal with wisdom.
    I also wonder if wisdom has to ‘facilitate greater positive engagement’. Is it not possible that wisdom may ‘facilitate negative engagement’. There is no reason to believe absolutely that wisdom has to be good as opposed evil and that collective intelligence is by definition beneficial as opposed to harmful or evil.


  6. Tom Atlee says:

    All our definitions will lead us into circles and dead ends if we take them too seriously. But the explorations are juicy, indeed. The consequences of using particular definitions may be as interesting as whether they are “right.”
    I would suggest that wisdom is most usefully considered not so much a thing that we have or don’t have, as a vector in our thinking, feeling, and intention — a vector thrusting towards greater inclusion, interconnectivity, synergy, and other aspects of wholeness.
    But I realize that many common usages of the word have little to do with this. “It is wise to kill off your enemies quickly before they can get you,” advises the experienced Mafiosi (who is still alive, thanks to the application of that “wisdom.”). Experience can teach us all sorts of things. “It is not wise to start a new relationship after you have failed in your others.”
    To me, the word “smart” could be used in place of the word “wise” in the above sentences, preserving the word “wise” for those usages that move towards more inclusivity. For example: “It is not wise to start a new relationship after you have failed in your others before learning more about what has led to those failures, so your new relationship can flourish.” (This wisdom invites one to include more knowledge of one’s own psychosocial dynamics.) “It is wise to understand your enemy and yourself so well that you can meet their needs while meeting your own.” (This wisdom invites us to embrace the big picture that includes both our needs and those of our “enemies.”)
    To me, intelligence (smartness) has no moral texture to it. It is simply the ability to maintain, change and apply mental models so that they align with reality. Wisdom, on the other hand, does (to me) have a moral grain, insofar as our wisdom-inspired efforts to include more of what is real about life inevitably take us further into the web of interconnectedness and thus into greater concern for the interests of others in that web, as well as deeper into nuance and complexity which usually undermines the simplistic dualities and ignorances we use to dismiss and harm each other.
    So (to me) wisdom tempers the application of our intelligence, leading us to embrace more of life with our smarts. And, since collective intelligence may be little more than intelligence at higher levels of social organization, it behooves us to include wisdom in our application of our smarts at any level simply for our own (enlightened) self-interest, as well as to help us manifest our intelligence at the next higher level.


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