Brothers in Arms, Part 2

Of knowing something… and understanding it

Shorter post this time, but I just felt compelled to share a little something that I came across earlier today. The second part in this series was inspired by Zeger van Hese’s post Feynman on Naming. I really like this post. Not only because I agree with Feynman’s father’s methods, the points both van Hese and Feynman make but also because it strongly reminded me of a write-up named “From books people learn to remember, from mistakes to understand” I wrote back in 2001. To quote the write-up:

Humans have a vivid imagination, with the capability of visualizing practically anything within the limits of human experience. Yet, imagination and visualization are not the same as true understanding; one can not imagine experience.

What this means is simple: you may know exactly (neurologically and physiologically) what happens when a person sticks his/her hand on a hot oven plate but you do not understand what it really is, until you have done it yourself. If you have, it is possible to recall what it actually felt like and how you perceived the sensation, in addition to knowing everything there is to know about the event. Your understanding has grown deeper than anybody’s who hasn’t made the same mistake themself.

While it may be intelligent not to stick your own hand on a hot oven plate, after seeing someone else doing it, in a way it is unwise: you will be depriving yourself of an experience. The same applies to just about everything; sex, drugs, skydiving, you name it. This is where “common sense” steps in the ring – some experiences are best left unexperienced. Personally, I wish I will never have to go through – for example – any of the following: death of a child or wife, sexual abuse, long-term imprisonment, drug overdose, psychosis of any kind, becoming paralyzed etc. Some I can prevent with my own actions and decisions, some I have no power over.

To quote “Good Will Hunting” – one of my all time top-10 movies:

“So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that.”

This is exactly what I mean with the difference between knowing and understanding.

This, in turn, reminded me of another text I wrote, also in 2001:

Furthermore, so what if some scientist, poet or philosopher had already come up with an idea 100, 1000 or, 3000 years ago, that you came up with right now? Ideas aren’t inherited, they don’t transfer to children in genes and make their lives better. No, those children will have to gain an understanding of their own and, in that, some long-dead philosopher’s profound ideas or incredibly deep understanding of the world, humans or life will have no effect. I’m not saying people couldn’t learn from other people’s ideas, no. What I’m saying is that reading those ideas does not equal understanding them – that has to come from inside yourself – the book or the long-dead philosopher can’t do it for you. Thus, it’s critically important to come up with ideas, in order to grow, develop and mature.

While I know this isn’t directly testing-related, it’s trivially easy to apply there as well. Just like van Hese wrote in his blog. I wish more people would do that – strive to understand, instead of just memorizing!

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2 Responses to Brothers in Arms, Part 2

  1. Extending this part:
    “Some I can prevent with my own actions and decisions, some I have no power over.”

    What I noticed from myself is that for some actions and decisions, I may have the power over, but I can do more informed decisions and actions. For example in order to avoid a psychosis, I have to know what a psychosis is in first place, and second I have to know about possibilities how to get one. Then I can try to avoid situations.

    On the other hand, if I tried to avoid all situations in this manner, I would have to become an expert in nearly every field. 🙂 But some basic knowledge about certain aspects is crucial to me. Knowing what causes a psychosis, may or may not prevent myself from trapping into it.

    • Petteri Lyytinen says:

      You’re making a very good point there, Markus. Even if you can’t prevent something from happening, it can’t hurt to know as much about it as possible, in order to mitigate the damages, or to simply be able to perform better and prevent possible further problems.

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