Prudence in The Age of Science

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana

We can’t change the past, and we should not spend time and energy dwelling on our own and other people’s mistakes. But we should use the insight and understanding history provides to help us make better decisions, to make better predictions, to foresee the possible outcomes of our decisions.

Prudence and the Past

Prudence in modern usage has become synonymous with caution, but a more complete understanding of this classical virtue includes the ability to control one’s actions based on reason and understanding. It encompasses foresight, insight, knowledge, and wisdom. In the classical world the virtue prudence was often represented by an image of a double-faced figure; on one side is the face of a young woman looking into a mirror, and on the other is the face of an old man looking back; she is reflecting, looking into herself and he is watching the past. Prudence urges us to learn from the past by looking internally to gain wisdom while planning a way forward.

Area 47 and the Future

Neuroscientists have discovered an area of the prefrontal cortex, called Brodmann area 47 that, they believe, is responsible for decision-making and reward prediction. Studies show that individuals who exhibit greater activity in Area 47 are consistently more accurate in predicting, and planning for, multiple potential outcomes. It would seem that, possibly, Area 47 is where human prudence comes from, that science has unlocked the area in the brain where we combine insight and an understanding of history to predict possible outcomes; the area of the brain where better decision-making skills come from.

From classical-thought to modern science, we have continuously examined and understood humanity’s consistent failure to learn from the past. We are reminded regularly that learning, reflection, and collective wisdom should be used to avoid the mistakes of the past. We are constantly reminded that if we fail to learn the lessons of history we are doomed to repeat them. Will we ever get to a point when we can listen to our own Brodmann Area 47 to more accurately foresee what’s ahead?  We can, but it will take focus, dedication, and work.

Some of the world’s most successful organizations have institutionalized the documentation of what worked and what didn’t work, capturing their history for future reference. They have built learning into the very fiber of their organizations with regular examination and identification of failures and successes. They embrace the processes of feedback and recalibration to lead to continuous improvement.

Change, Change, and More Change

The only constant is change. The only guarantee is change. We will be 100% right if we predict that things will change. And if we continue to do the same things, in a changing world, we are unlikely to achieve our full potential. We have access to much of the information that could help us chart a successful course, but we often ignore it.

Where are we going? Where have we been? How often have you witnessed an organization making the same mistakes? Our challenges change but we insist on applying the same solutions, expecting new outcomes, and are regularly disappointed. We stick with what is familiar, naming it “tried and true”, but we might be standing in the way our own success, our history may be limiting our future.

So, the point. Let’s use the opportunities change presents to us wisely. Let’s learn from history, making sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Let’s embrace prudence as we navigate transition. We have to make sure we don’t continue doing what we have always done because it’s the way we have always done it; if we don’t we will likely get the same results we always have.

It’s time to do something new, by paying attention to something old, listening to what we have learned.

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