Sunday, June 17, 2007

On Understanding

I promised not to wax philosophical for a while. But I have been having these discussions on Evolution and the role of thermodynamics in cosmology with all manners of people and as a consequence I have realized that many people don’t stop to think what they mean when they say they understand something. So, I want to use this post to address the question “What is understanding?” Let us start with the dictionary definition of the word. Merriam-Webster’s says the following:

Etymology: Middle English, from Old English understandan, from under + standan to stand
transitive verb
1 a : to grasp the meaning of (understand Russian) b : to grasp the reasonableness of (his behavior is hard to understand) c : to have thorough or technical acquaintance with or expertness in the practice of (understand finance) d : to be thoroughly familiar with the character and propensities of (understands children)
2 : to accept as a fact or truth or regard as plausible without utter certainty (understand that he is returning from abroad)
3 : to interpret in one of a number of possible ways
4 : to supply in thought as though expressed ("to be married" is commonly understood after the word engaged)

Well, that does not help much because understanding is a complicated combination of 1a-d. Let me try and explain what I mean. Suppose I know 10 facts. I try to understand these facts by trying to find relationships among them, i.e., look for the one underlying fact, usually called an assumption or faith depending on your taste, from which the ten other facts I know can be derived from purely logic. Now, you can ask, “What is the use of this? Why can’t I just keep the ten facts in my mind?” Well, there are two uses. The first one is that this reduction simplifies the world around us. The second is that it allows for a phenomenon called predictability. If I used my logic correctly to deduce the primary fact from which the other 10 facts are derivable, then I can use the same logic to conclude that 10 other things must be true as well, and these 10 things I did not know when I started this exercise. Then, I watch the world around me for the verification of the ten new things I now think must be true. If they are, then my assumption is right and it becomes a part of my understanding of the world. If they are not, then I take the new set of things that I now know to be true and apply logic again to ask how my assumption must be modified so as to account for all the facts I know at this time.

That concludes my definition of understanding. Now, there are some important things associated with this definition that we need to keep in mind. First, note that in the above sense, understanding is a dynamic thing. It evolves as the number of things we know increases. Also note that this understanding requires an active application of the intellect to sort out the various things we know. The first point above is the reason why it is important to be “open minded” in order to understand, that is, one must be willing at all times to re examine one’s assumptions regarding the world every time a new fact makes itself available to us. Questioning our open mindedness at all times is a prerequisite for understanding

The second point above is associated with a common mistake people make. They confuse familiarity with understanding. You see, there is another way to have predictability in our world. If I drop a ball ten times and every time it falls to the ground instead of going up, by the eleventh time I know it is going to fall down. But this is because I am familiar with this fact, i.e., I have seen it before and remember it, not because I understand it. I did not use my intellect actively to integrate the fact that the ball falls down with other things I know, for example an apparently unrelated one like the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. I am able to predict the outcome only because I have seen it before. I am finding that many people do not distinguish between these two origins of predictability and hence mistake familiarity with something for understanding the same thing. This is a trap we must all be aware of, otherwise we will surely fall into it.

Do you see what I am saying? Do you agree? And, in spite of my choice of examples, this applies to understanding all things, not just the physical world, but society, the mind, or anything else you can think of.


Anonymous said...

welcome. helps me think too.
I guess, its upto you to discern what people mean when they say they understand, because the dictionary meaning covers it all! You have to choose 1a-d or 2,3,4.
I agree when you say you have to be open minded in order to increase our knowledge bank and therefore understanding. But when it comes to familiarity and understanding I think its a little tricky. There are situations where familiarity itself is understanding! For example when you solve a complex mathematical equation. What is there to understand here? You solve it 10 times and become familiar with solving such things. Same thing with emotions in a human mind. Let's say you fear something. You face it 50 times, you might become familiar with it and lose fear. Doesn't mean that you understood it right? What I'm trying to say is that, there are situations where you don't really understand but are familiar with things and using either of the words doesn't really make much of a difference.

CuriousCat said...

Dear Anonymous: Well, what you are saying is ok perhaps. But consider the following in the context of your example. Suppose you fear something. There are two ways to get rid of the fear. One : Understand it, by looking for the root cause of your reaction (child hood incidence, conditioning, etc) and truely realize why you fear it. Two: As you suggest, just blindly face your fear till you overcome it due to shear familiarity and your inertia due to familiarity that builds up inevitably. In the second case, all you achieve is overcoming that particular fear. But in the former case, the analysis will lend itself to naturally explain and understand many of your fears and its outcome is more broad ranged. Do you see? Understanding is necessarily better than familiarity in this context. And I am unable to see when they can be equivalent.

vatsa01 said...

first understanding is normative or positivist? when you say you understand something, do you know how a system works and stop there or pass judgements?

lets take the corrupt indian system, when i say i understand it, i know how it functions and can get my way round it. I pass no judgements on it.

but someone else might pass judgements, which one is it?

PS: Pliss watch sivaji and then speak. As an old rajini fan sivaji is the demise of rajini as i knew him

vatsan said...

and we sent virtual autos after confused, only damilians can critise damilians. how dare a vadanattukaran write such posts?

CuriousCat said...

Vatsan sir, chumma enna kozhappanum ne ippadi ellam sollreenga!:)

What is normative/positivist? Define por favor!

And I am not thinking of stuff you can pass judgement on, I am thinking of natural stuff. A question of judgement does not apply here.

And thiruppi sollrein..neenga romba mosum...unmaiyaa irundaalum superstar a paththi ippadi sollalaama:) And glad we agree that confused maari aalungala nikka vechchi sudanum. Vadanattukarangalukku nambala pathti ippadi ellaam pesa no right!:))