More on Understanding

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Offline pantodragon

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More on Understanding
« on: 21/01/2013 15:04:58 »
This was intended as a follow on to a previous post titled Understanding.  However, the moderators have been moving my posts around, tidying up the site, and so I have lost track of the original post.  I hope this post is sufficient to stand on its own.


In an earlier post on the subject I did little more than state that you will not understand what a cat is of you do not also  know what a dog is, and pushed that outwards to say that the broader your knowledge and EXPERIENCE, then the deeper your understanding.  I also stated that the corollary is also true: that if you study just one thing, or subject, in isolation from the rest of the world, then you will understand very little, or even nothing at all. This post will explain why I say this.

If you look at a cat in isolation from all else you will identify the cat by describing everything you can see in great detail.  So it has fur, and claws, and teeth of a certain size and shape etc.  But what you will not be able to identify is which of these details is SIGNIFICANT.  Also, you will not know WHY it is the way it is.  For example, are a cat’s teeth white for a reason?  Is the whiteness of the cat’s teeth significant for any reason? I mean, perhaps white teeth are peculiar to cats and therefore an identifying feature.  Perhaps cats ‘grin’ as a form of communication and the whiteness of the teeth  makes the grin very visible.

This perspective can be understood most easily if one thinks of oneself as an alien that has come to the Earth from a technological planet where all natural life has become extinct, so you have never seen an animal before, nor plants, nor any sort of natural environment.

The alien, having examined the cat in detail, then puts it on the floor, and the can immediately ‘runs’ up the curtains; the alien then says, “Ah, that is why it has claws: so that it can climb better.  It is a climbing creature.”

He then sees the cat spot a ball of yarn and start to play with it, but he can have no notion that all this pouncing and chasing actually relates to the way a cat hunts.

Next the alien goes down to Earth and sees a cat in its natural environment and suddenly a whole load of things becomes clear – it is a hunter, and stalks its prey, and the colour of its fur camouflages it, and so on.

But then the alien sees a pack of hunting dogs living as social animals and hunting their prey by running it down, and again, suddenly, the alien understands a lot more about the cat.  It sees that a lot of things the cat does, and the way it does them, are different from dogs because it is a loner and takes prey that, often as not, cannot be run down: birds, for instance.

So, again, in order to understand a cat’s hunting techniques, which in turn dictate much about the ‘design’ of the animal, you have to study its prey and see how they behave.

But the alien has not experience of the natural environment.  He decides to leave his ‘module’ and explore the outdoors.  Now he becomes aware of all the smells and sounds, not just as things recorded by instruments, but as things that affect him.  For example: that rustle of the bushes – is there something watching him?  A dangerous animal?  How should he react if it is?  He decides to return to his module, but steps on a twig that cracks loudly.  He stops dead realising that every move he makes causes noises that could give his presence away.

This experience hugely deepens his understanding of the cat, of things like the way it places its paws so carefully when it stalks its prey, and the way, even when dozing in the sun, a cat’s ears are always twitching this way and that, picking up every noise etc.  And the alien would understand the cat even better it he tried hunting for himself.

Then move outwards.  The entire natural world operates as a single system in which everything has a place and a role to play, so once you grasp the whole natural world and see how things fit together you will have an even better understanding of a cat and its role in the scheme of things.

But then, you will understand what is significant about the natural world if you see it in contrast to the ‘un-natural’ world i.e. human society.

This could go on and on, but what it boils down to is that the broader your knowledge and experience then he deeper your understanding.  And it goes both ways: when you study dogs to better understand cats you also develop and understanding of dogs.  So, one does not develop and understanding of ONE thing, eg cats. By its very nature understanding is broad and deep, and rather than saying one develops an understanding of cats, it is more appropriate to say one is developing one’s understanding full stop.

Take something less obvious, like physics:

Newton’s laws would just be equations, nothing more if one did not have experience of being in the world, of throwing things and seeing trajectories, and of running or cycling and experiencing your own ‘momentum’ etc.

Then, the language of physics is, of course, maths, and you will not understand maths if you do not compare it to other languages, including the likes of English, but also music, art (visual communication) and bird song and so on.

The very ‘practice’ of theoretical physics is an intellectual activity which you will not understand until you compare it to other intellectual activities, and then to non-intellectual activities – philosophy, history, art, music, craft work and so on.  And experimental physics is best understood by comparison with eg chemistry, cooking, animal husbandry, craft work etc.

And then, science sets itself up as the successor to religions – OK it does not pretend to have an answer to the question of the existence or otherwise of god, but it replaces them as the fount of all wisdom, replaces the authority of the prophets with the authority of observed ‘facts’, replaces their creation myths with its own story of creation, replaces their moral authority with the morality of the struggle for survival. (It is interesting to note that the first universities were creations of the Church, so science and the rest of the academic world can be seen as the rebel son who sets himself up in opposition to the father.)  So you will not understand science unless you also study religions.  Then the worlds of science and religion compare instructively with the worlds of business and politics and so on.

So, physics, as surely as a cat, cannot be understood in isolation from the rest of the world.  Physics, as surely as a cat, has its place in the larger world of society/culture/nature, and you need to see how it fits in and functions within the larger world.

On this basis, I repeat my earlier assertion: ‘experts’ KNOW a very great deal, but UNDERSTAND nothing.

So, all you mediocrities out there: you may not be as mediocre as you think. 

KNOWLEDGE is POWER; that is its attraction.  UNDERSTANDING is NOT POWER; that is its problem.