“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Some of the most fundamental concepts in human cognition are perception, understanding, and knowledge, I distinguish them mentally but why? Are they distinct concepts or different stages of the same process?
Now that I am questioning everything, I am starting to see learning and the accumulation of knowledge as the progressive construction of a Jenga tower. When we are kids we are not very good at this – our understandings are constantly challenged and the tower falls down a lot. We see a four legged animal with a tail and call it a dog, our parents then correct us. This animal meows, it is therefore a cat. Then we go to the zoo and see a lion, which looks nothing like the cat at home, but we are told that that too is from the cat family.
So I’ve come up with a pretty good mental image of knowledge and learning, but what struck me was the way we share and communicate this knowledge. In cross-cultural psychology a few weeks ago we talked about Whorf’s hypothesis. This is the idea that we all think mostly in words, since we speak different languages, the actual thought content and processes must be different cross-culturally. Which makes sense intuitively, but still I sat back and tried to simply imagine something without thinking of the word or using a word to call an image to my mind. I couldn’t do it. Reasoning that perhaps it was the conscious awareness of this theory that was making this task so difficult, I decided to rally up some guinea pigs. One very confused Starbucks employee and 4 friends later, I came to the conclusion that while the jury is still out on its utility in resolving the relativism/universalism debate, its premise is pretty solid.
So language is a fundamental part of our knowledge and thought processes. In almost every part of the world acquisition of language is a fundamental part of development. If the child fails to learn to speak, barring any organic causes such as being mute or deaf, we assume something is psychologically or physiologically wrong with the child. And with good reason. As inherently social creatures, the ability to speak is fundamental in our ability to communicate and connect with the world, which would theoretically increase the odds of an individual’s survival.
So if language is so fundamental, and assuming we all evolved from a common ancestor, why do we have so many languages? Why are some radically different while others seem so similar you wonder why two languages evolved instead of one. Even within the same language there are multiple dialects, making it difficult even for two individuals who speak the same language to effectively communicate. Language is incredibly complex, and, in my opinion, horribly arbitrary. Last week the point was raised, why do we call a circle a circle? It doesn’t look like what it’s called. I built on this point making my morning coffee – why on earth did one guy say “coffee,” another “café,” and a third, “kaffee?” And why do the Portuguese and French have the same word for coffee but different words for beach?
So if we cannot necessarily communicate our knowledge linguistically in a universal manner, then how do we share and demonstrate our knowledge? Do we need to do so or is that a culturally constructed necessity – we share to prove our worth? Let’s assume that we don’t actually feel a need to share knowledge, it just happens accidentally. Then how do we learn things? We can learn a lot through observation – it’s how most infants first grasp gravity, by dropping things off the high chair. There is an entire school of psychology dedicated to vicarious learning, but that to me is more learning of behaviours. What about our understanding of things we have never seen or that cannot be seen. How do we learn about these things? Through language – I read about them, and I am able to understand. I have never seen individuals afflicted with some of the syndromes I have read about, but I understand the symptoms and theoretical causes. What about the things in our lives that we can’t see – the abstract concepts – like love, fear, and stress?
I present these examples because they all have physiological responses associated with them – so theoretically they exist in a sense. Our body experiences a visible and measurable reaction to the apparent processes of our mind, at least if you believe as I do that emotions exist and are not simply our brain’s chemical cocktail concocted in response to specific sensory stimuli combinations. So we have physiological responses, which means that our emotional responses must too be real. Different sources of arousal generate different patterns of physiological arousal. So the emotions exist independent of the language we apply to them. Love is still love, regardless of whether we call it love, amour, liefde, or bhālōbāsi. Just as gravity existed long before Newton “discovered” it and gave it a name.
So now I’m really in a pickle. I’ve argued that things exist independent of language, but that we cannot think without language and thus it becomes necessary. I’ve also argued that language is too arbitrary to be crucial for such a universal concept as knowledge but that two people still understand the same thing even if they cannot communicate their mutual understanding.
If anyone knows how to sort that one out, give me a shout. I’ll get you an A in the course. And by you, I mean me.
So for now the idea of sharing knowledge seems too complex and multifaceted to sort out at the moment. Let’s return to the understanding/perceiving debate for a bit.
Building off the language debate and the idea that we have words for things that we cannot perceive, I propose that we understand via inferences. Religion is a prime example of how we believe and understand without seeing things, we have faith based on our internal beliefs. Is religion not fundamentally a human construction? It is a thought process, a set of cognitive schemas, based entirely on our own mental constructions. Beyond perceiving the religiously oriented behaviours of others, there is no perceiving that which is the core of the religion- for example – we do not have an actual picture of Jesus, the only accounts of Him are from religious texts. And for the record, I do not intend this dialogue to be indicative of my position on religion – only to demonstrate that we have ideas that we wholly believe despite the fact that we do not necessarily have any sensory reason to do so. So understanding cannot really be reliant on perception.
Does this mean they are mutually exclusive concepts? Maybe not. After all, both are heavily influenced by knowledge. Which brings us to the question of what is knowledge for? Answering this question will guide the discussion on what understanding has that perceiving does not.
So what is knowledge for? Predicting? That kind of requires understanding does it not? Even if that simply means being aware of correlations between events. Last week the point was raised that we can think we have an accurate method of predicting, but that can be wrong. In the mean time, our observation of the correlations lead us to believe we understood cause and effect. Thus understanding was rooted in predicting. We need to know what comes next. It’s part of survival. Though I will admit that at the moment, I am sitting at a laptop questioning how useful my current behaviour is to my survival. I mean you could say – well this skill is necessary for being able to obtain a career that will allow me to properly support myself since the days of deer hunting as a primary source of nutrition are long gone here in the “western” world. That really is just an ad hoc excuse. Still, my understanding of cause and effect, has allowed me to reasonably predict that, unless my laptop crashes, pushing buttons, will cause the corresponding symbols to appear on the screen.
I seem to be making a very strong case for knowledge=for understanding=for predicting, but that isn’t the whole story as I see it. I have repeatedly referred to myself as a bounty of useless information. I have a whole host of facts held in my mind, that I highly doubt are pertinent to my survival. Like my understanding of the mating preferences and the rationale behind the differential fin length and colour in male and female bettas. I easily could have gone the rest of my life without knowing that and it would not have impacted the likelihood of my survival in any way shape or form. Unless I end up on some game show where the answer to that question will secure me millions of dollars.
Watching the latest episode of Criminal Minds is also unlikely to impact my odds of survival. As is the fact that I know anything beyond the first 3 digits of pi. It’s still knowledge.
So if it’s not for predicting, and knowing three more digits of pi isn’t really going to help me get anywhere, why do I keep this information? Because I have the neural capacity? Like my laptop I will continue to store useless things until I run out of room and am forced to make some hard decisions? But the brain’s capacity is virtually limitless. Or so nearly every professor I have had has told me. Given how frequently I forget where I put my keys or important facts on test day, I beg to differ. Let’s just go with that though – we can store as much information as we want/need to. If I’m not storing it to predict, why am I storing it at all? This suggests that there must be some other point to knowledge than simply predicting, but that information, however, useless to my survival, does help me understand my world. Even if that understanding is a little useless.
So, so far we’ve got:
- knowledge is a jenga tower that may collapse on us at any moment
- knowledge isn’t only about predicting, we can understand, without predicting
- language is arbitrary and varied which suggests that it is wholly independent of knowledge, but it is also a fundamental aspect of how we think and cognitively organize the world
We still need:
- to differentiate between understanding and perception
- to figure out the role of language if it cannot be fundamentally part of knowledge and yet it has to be
Tonight, let’s just see if in one super messy Venn Diagram, I can sort out understanding and perception.
As you can see, I’m not sure anything was really sorted out. Except that in my opinion, since perception is theoretically the stimulation of sensory neurons activating neural pathways – perception requires external stimuli, while understanding, can also be entirely internal, as in the generation of novel ideas and imagining possible situations. The only other distinction I could make was that in a sense, perception was more about the singulars. Yes, to a degree the perception of those singulars is impacted by prior experience, thus becoming a product of the integration of multiple events, but the sensory events that are key for perception, are unavoidably singular and unique. Understanding, requires the integration of multiple events and mental experiences.
So the understanding-perception debate seems to be resolved, at least for now. Maybe sometime in the next week I’ll resolve that language-knowledge linkage.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
― Søren Kierkegaard