How do you know you understand what you think you understand?

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“I understand.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

“Is it fair to say that you feel certain about your understanding?”

“I’d much rather say I am certain.”

“What’s the difference? Is it because ‘I am certain’ gives it an air of objectivity?”

“You could say that.”

“Let us think of what I like to call pseudo-understanding – thinking you understand something without really understanding it. Using your distinction, one who understands something is certain of his understanding, whereas one who pseudo-understands only feels certain. Correct?”

“Correct.”

“What if, unbeknown to him, some of the premises on which the former’s genuine understanding rests are false? In logical terms, his argument is valid (the conclusion follows from the premises) but unsound (the premises are false). So he’s actually in the latter category.”

“I wouldn’t call it genuine understanding in this case.”

“Neither would I. But from his perspective, his understanding feels genuine. That’s what I’m getting at. Using your distinction again, what he took to be certain understanding only feels certain. Interestingly, both feel equally certain.

My point is, understanding is indistinguishable from pseudo-understanding, like identical twins dressed in identical manner.”

“If the feeling is identical in both cases, what exactly is causing it?”

“What I like to call ‘internal coherence‘.

We use the word ‘understanding’ to describe both a process and an outcome. In essence, understanding-as-a-process means creating mental connections, whereas understanding-as-an-outcome means creating coherent mental structures.

When someone says ‘I understand’, it only means that on his mental map he has created a coherent structure, which may or may not match a corresponding external structure, or the corresponding structure on your mental map.”

“Would you say your understanding of understanding is genuine?”

“I would say it’s internally coherent, and it’s a functional model.”

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About Dani Trusca

Life-Artist, Thinker, Mover (Traceur)

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