03 October 2019

What happens when we understand something?

What happens when we understand something?

We are talking about the “Aha!” moments in our lives. Otherwise also known as “seeing the light”, “Dah”, “smelling the coffee”, “I get it!”, “I get it, now!”, “of course!”, you get the idea. The problem is what makes us understand something when moments before we didn’t. And it’s not necessarily a matter of knowing something more before we get to understand something, although sometimes it might be the case.

We can also describe understanding as rearranging what we already know in such a way or in such a perspective that from a state of puzzlement we morph into a state of understanding. We are all familiar with these mental states of affairs in our life starting from our infancy. It is a pity that we were subjected to complex situations in our childhood when we were the least equipped with our knowledge of things. Yet, we are supposed to understand the complexities of life such as money, reproduction, nourishment and so on. What we know, for example, at this young age about money is that its causal effect is something that makes us happy. And even then being happy is not a sufficient condition to understand something.

What does it mean to say we understand something? The Aha! moment must surely generate a rush of some “feel good” chemicals in our brain that affirms our newly acquired epistemic state of affairs. Indeed this is how we motivate young children at school or at home by praising them for getting things right or doing what we ask them. And does understanding equal to learning something?

Another question is: does understanding create a feel good event in us thus leading us to believe that something is good or the truth? I suggest the questions maybe relevant because we have a bias to associate what we think we understand to what we know and thus turning our understanding into something good.

Our understanding does not confer truth on the thing that we understand. Understanding something is a mental event and a subjective one at that. How and why we understand something depends on our subjective epistemic state of mind. In many cases we might even have a conflict of epistemic states: we might be in a situation when we know the facts and the public pronouncement of such facts, but we fail to understand how the facts can lead to the accepted “conclusion”.

Maybe this is one of the most common concerns we have about understanding certain events in life. We know the facts but the conclusion does not seem to be right; we feel as if we have some innate formal logic algorithm telling us that we should not believe the conclusion, especially the public domain conclusion. Of course, some people can happily live in a state of bliss without engaging this formal logic algorithm.

For example, we just don’t believe how our team could lose against an inferior team in the semifinal; it just does not make sense. Until, that is we discover months or years later that some Asian syndicate bribed one of our player to lose the match. In the real world, this problem is of mega proportions.

9/11 is another case in point. At face value, plus the official story, we believe that a massive tall steel building can swallow an aircraft that is made of delicate metals. And the result is that both the aircraft and the building are pulverised into dust. As a dormant plane spotter I’ve never heard of a plane being pulverised into dust after a crash; there are always bits and pieces lying about. And I’ve been on a military plane that crashed and later used by firelighters with real fire to train upon. These things only happen in cartoons and comics. This is not a matter of scepticism but rather a matter of unable to understand how the facts can lead to pulverised steel and concrete. The first time this happened was when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And of course, Brexit, does not make sense until one knows the real factors behind this abuse of democracy: tax havens and the desire to turn the UK into a tax haven explains the mad rush to leave the EU by the present UK Government. It also happens that this year is the year when the EU anti-tax evasion regulations have to be applied. See for example: UK tax reform must be condition of EU post-Brexit trade accord, say MEPs  https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/articles/news/uk-tax-reform-must-be-condition-eu-post-brexit-trade-accord-say-meps .

In a way, not understanding something is not necessarily a weakness in us especially when we already know enough about the subject: it is not always our fault and in any case give the other person the opportunity to be wrong. Sure, someone who never saw a crashed and burnt aircraft and never saw the relevant cartoons would be justified in believing the official narrative. But not everyone is in this state of epistemic bliss which is why many professional experts have been investigating the events of the 9/11 to discover what really happened.

In effect understanding is not something we do but something that happens in us, a kind of epistemic transformation as mentioned above. But the transformation might happen because we possess the true knowledge in the context of what we understand. But we can understand by suppressing our beliefs or maybe even knowledge so that we can conform to the crowd.

Sometimes maybe we do not really understand something but claim to understand by simply agreeing with the consensus. This is precisely the situation Thomas Kuhn was describing in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Basically, and this is my paraphrasing of the idea, when our facts do not fit reality anymore we do not change our mind and accept the error but rather we change the paradigm. We accept the new facts and move on from there with the new paradigm. This takes time and in the context of human interaction might cause serious effects on people in the meantime.

There are also two types of understanding: we “understand what” and we “understand how-to”. For example, we understand the workings of gravity, the what, and from this we move on to understand how to send rockets into space (how-to). So if our understanding of something is correct, (or represents reality, or p explains q*) then we can move from knowing-what to knowing how-to and we succeed in our endeavour. One implication of us understanding something is that we can successfully apply what we understand in real life and maybe even do things on automatic. For example, this month when I tried to renew my travel ticket the machine did not offer me the usual options to renew. It transpired that for some reason (unknown to everyone) the system decided that I am a pensioner and should thus use a different card.

The other aspect of understanding something is that we subject our epistemic state of mind to the possibility of falsifiability, in other words something that is subject to testability. Whatever we understand we do so independent of reality, hence the necessary condition that if what we understand is knowledge that knowledge has to stand the test of time. Does this mean that we might be wrong? In effect anything we call knowledge is always subject to testability. Indeed this is the scientific and philosophical methods at arriving to knowledge. Anything else is just dogma and, hence, there is nothing to understand with dogma.

Best Lawrence

* the following article is an excellent in depth and pure philosophical expose of understanding in philosophy: Understanding in Epistemology by Emma C. Gordon - https://www.iep.utm.edu/understa/

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6-10-2019 minor typos corrected

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