Gorbachev Tear Down The Veil

Seeking Knowledge or Understanding

By: - Dec 11, 2014



There is no easy short answer: the difference between knowledge and understanding is not so obvious at first, but if you think about it a little, you will find, for instance, that knowing about hieroglyphics does not mean we understand them.                                    

Yesterday I went to the Watershed Pub & Kitchen on the other side of the river. On the way the bridge was unusually crowded. I wove through the crowd breathing in the cool air--feeling happy to be alive.

The pub was dark, crowded, and noisy, a popular place frequented by artists of all sorts. I was waiting for Apia to show up to continue our discussion about knowledge that we had begun earlier on the river’s bank. I looked forward to hearing what she had to say about a question I raised earlier.

Minutes later Apia arrived, giving off her characteristic air of energy and freshness.

“Hi” she said, “ah, you asked me what the difference between knowledge and understanding is. Good question, she said. “There is no easy short answer: the difference between knowledge and understanding is not so obvious at first, but if you think about it a little, you will find, for instance, that knowing about hieroglyphics does not mean we understand them. On the other hand, in order to understand something, knowledge comes in handy.” Then she continued, “Philosophers grappled with epistemology for centuries, and they are still looking for satisfactory answers.”

Then I said, “But today’s brain research affects how philosophers think. Some even abandoned traditional reasoning and build their theories from present research on social psychology, human behavior, and evolution. They point out that we are careless when it comes to reasoning; our reasoning is overtaken by emotion, the unconscious, and pre conceived ideas. We create biases, beliefs, and desires from early on in life.” 

Apia smiled, and said, “Yes, these characteristics follow us where ever we go, and later on we find it hard to shed off.  That’s why I insist that before we claim that we know what we are talking about, we ought to reexamining how we make assertions, esthetic judgment, and language etcetera, etcetera.”

“True” I said; “Aristotelian logic influenced and ruled the western philosophical world throughout the Middle Ages up until the 19th Century.  The irony is it took all these centuries to uncover the fallacy in his logic. Here is an example of Aristotelian logic:  All birds are Greek; Socrates is Greek; therefore Socrates is a bird.”

Apia said that these great men from the past, though taught us a lot, have become museum pieces, beautiful objects to look at.  

I barged in. “Time matters—doesn’t anyone understand, for god sake? Today we are dealing with atom bombs, rockets to the moon and beyond, TV, You name it. Who is going to deny that we are living in a reality that is so different and more complex than theirs? I think that the more we revere and hold on to these old archaic ideas, the less likely we will see peace on earth.”

“That’s why,” she said, “I am interested in the idea of self-knowledge; it’s about total awareness, day by day, of what we do and say. I question everyone, what makes you so sure that your beliefs are synonymous with truth?”

I have argued in the past that to know oneself in relation to the world we occupy is paramount to being a responsible human being.

Apia closed her eyes and said, “Expressing ideas or opinions, without any facts to support them is like a child who is deprived of education. So many people with so many different experiences…so, how do we iron out differences and come to some consensus?”

“It’s hard for me to believe that consensus will happen any time soon without an imminent threat from an outside entity. Maybe then and only then, the divisions between science, technology, religion, politics, and ecosystems will be obliterated. Perhaps then the knowledge-skeptics will wake up to the fact that our survival depends on expert knowledge,” I said.

Apia thought for a moment and then replied, “Yes, people are not aware that scientific innovations change people’s perspective on the world. Look, art at the beginning of the 20th century e.g. cubism, pointillism, and abstract art, were a direct result of new scientific discoveries. What happened then couldn’t have happened earlier--even a year earlier.”

In addition, “There is a mismatch between human understandings and the ever emerging technologies” Apia said.

“Yes right, we are missing the fact that all the electronic gadgets that are readily available today are the results of new scientific and engineering discoveries,” I said.

Apia replied, “We are automatons in a complex universe, then.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean people are passive; they have no time to learn about how their brains create reality.”

In the pause that followed, we sat back and observed people around us. I saw an artist friend approaching our table. “Look who is here. Hi Joe, what brings you here?”  

Joe answered, “I just dropped in for a drink, hoping to meet someone.”

Apia ignored the guy and continued, “Art should expose our ignorance… artists should be seekers of knowledge.”

“Wait a minute,” Joe interrupted “You don’t need to know anything to be creative; people have been creating for centuries without the need for knowledge! Your ideas destroy creativity.”

“Look, we are in the middle of a conversation,” Apia said. “Besides you don’t have the foggiest idea of what creativity is. There is no point explaining anything to you! We saw your work at the Caspian’s! It’s derivative and mindless at that.”


“The trouble,” I added, “He is not alone. It’s the whole art world and society at that.” He was surprised at my directness.  

Joe got red in the face and said, “You seem uninterested in sources of meaning that have had meaning for thousands of years, and from which we derive…. everything or everything really worth talking about.”

Apia nodded her head--she felt sorry for the fellow. Then she replied:

“Here is a story from Richard Feynman, a noble laurite physicist, that exposes the weakness of your arguments.” Feynman’s account is as follows:

 “I have a friend who's an artist and he's sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I'll agree, I think. And he says – ‘you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.’ And I think that he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is; but I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time I see much more about the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean it's not just beauty at this dimension of one centimeter; there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure. Also the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting - it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which shows that science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don't understand how it subtracts.”

Amazing, I admire this woman. I should gather some courage and ask her out to dinner, I thought.

Joe seemed upset, and then he uttered his rebuttal. “I don’t care what physicists think. Their reductionist view takes the mystery and beauty out of everything. This leaves no room for the primitive, the outsider, the wordless feeling, and the lack of spiritual or visionary power.”

“Joe,” I said, “What Apia and I are talking about is simple. It’s about learning about who we are and the world we inhabit. Without it we are just walking zombies. You hang on words like primitive, feelings, spiritual, and visionary power without ever examining the meaning or validity of these words. Lots of people embrace spirituality without any supporting evidence—where does the spiritual reside and where did it come from?”

Joe got up, said “There are many kinds of knowledge” and walked out. 

Apia looked serious for a moment and said, “how can we weave a thread of understanding across this complicated tapestry we call humanity, and to everyone’s benefit?”

“Educating the educators,” I said: “An educator’s understanding should be made up of information that shapes, organizes, and integrate knowledge that corresponds to the time it’s conceived. We ought to, ‘perceive knowledge as something we do, rather than something we have.’“  

“Well,” she added, “Our senses are limited; there is a range of parameters which are way outside our experience. For instance, before the speed of light was discovered people could not imagine a speed faster than horses, cars, or falling objects. Intuition really depends on the available knowledge at the time it was conceived. But with a caveat, knowledge that is based on evidence can still be misleading.”

Right, our brain is not only physically limited in tackling the problem of knowledge, it’s also limited in ability to process the colossal amount of information that is constantly entering it. We need a radical paradigm shift.

Again, Apia anticipated my thought and said, “We ought to think seriously about some kind of an extension to the brain.”

 “Yes,” I said, “no wonder, people, be it in artists’ studios, in labs, or in movies, are curled inward in their own little encapsulated world. It’s mind-boggling to see how passively and helplessly we react to disaster after disaster with no incentives or ideas of what to do about it. I know we can make a difference, but first, we must change the way we think, and second, and most importantly, we must start at the core.”

“Do you mean the brain?” Apia said.

Footnote: I am aware that my exposition on knowledge and existence is far from complete; all I can do here is engage the curiosity of the readers enough to motivate them to pursue this important topic farther. I did not touch, for instance, on stereotyping, folk psychology, stored attitudes in memory, and more.